While much is written about the challenges facing colleges and universities—and the challenges are numerous—there is also much success. Each year, more than 2.4 million students receive an undergraduate degree in the United States. Their experiences are individual and diverse, but their opinions of that degree are nearly unanimous. According to recent polling conducted by the American Council on Education (ACE), virtually all recent college and university graduates found their education worth the time and money spent (89 percent), and felt that the experience had prepared them with the knowledge and skills to succeed in a modern workforce.
In light of efforts by the Obama administration, foundations, and state leaders to increase the number of U.S. college graduates, as well as the increasing scrutiny from congressional leaders of the value of these credentials, the alumni voice is an important assessment of our institutions. As graduates, they have a more positive view of their experiences than critics may lead the public to believe. However, alumni are not without concerns, and they are ultimately the consumers, beneficiaries, and best advocates of academia’s collective efforts.
Worth the Investment
In early 2010, ACE conducted a nationally representative survey of recent college graduates about their undergraduate experiences. The study surveyed young graduates (25–39 years old) of two- and four-year institutions. Similar to a study that ACE conducted in 2008, the respondents represented a diversity of college graduates: 70 percent had graduated from a public institution, 80 percent were married, and more than two-thirds reported having young children. The findings of both studies confirmed an overwhelming enthusiasm for the value of their college education, but also highlighted some challenges for higher education.
Following the 2010 study, ACE conducted 21 identical surveys with individual institutions that volunteered to participate in the study. Representing all sectors of higher education, the institution-level findings unveiled some differences regarding satisfaction with certain aspects of their education, but were consistent in the overall finding of high value.
Among all recent graduates, the national study found that 89 percent believed their education was worth it—even after considering the time and money required to attend. Institutional responses ranged from 80 percent to 97 percent agreeing that their college education was worth the time and money expended (see Figure 1). Nearly 80 percent of young alumni reported that they would choose to attend the same institution again, although this finding was slightly more prevalent among graduates of four-year institutions than their two-year counterparts.
Graduates were then asked how useful they have found their college education and experiences to have been in preparing them for the workforce and for meeting future societal challenges. More than 80 percent of alumni felt they had been effectively prepared by their college or university, and 85 percent of alumni felt their undergraduate experience had prepared them for their current job. Yet only 62 percent reported that they believed colleges in general were preparing students for the demands of the modern workforce. Institutional responses ranged from 59 percent to 72 percent of alumni reporting that institutions are preparing students for the modern workforce (see Figure 2).
Alumni were then asked what they thought was the most important role of colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, 28 percent reported preparing students for employment
. However, 31 percent reported teaching students how to think critically
and 17 percent selected preparing students to solve problems that face our country
(see Figure 3). With heightened attention on career preparation, alumni clearly still identify fundamental problem-solving and inquiry skills as the hallmark of their undergraduate education.
Graduates also have concerns about the price of higher education. Regardless of overall opinions on college prices, 76 percent of alumni reported that their
institution charged a fair price for their education. Graduates of public institutions were more likely than other alumni to have felt that their own college or university charged a fair price for their education (77–90 percent). However, while graduates of private institutions were more concerned about the price, they still overwhelmingly reported that the investment was worth it.
Alumni then were asked who they believed should primarily be responsible for funding higher education, with 40 percent indicating students and families, compared to 30 percent citing the federal government, and 20 percent the state government (see Figure 4). As one might expect, some variability can be found when responses are cut by institutional type, with community college graduates feeling that more responsibility for financing should rest with the state and federal governments.
Some key highlights of the survey include:
Graduates felt effectively prepared with the knowledge and skills they needed upon graduation (81 percent).
- Respondents were asked to reflect on their undergraduate experiences, and graduates of both two- and four-year public and private institutions reported high levels of satisfaction with the skills and knowledge they acquired (ranging from 77 percent to 92 percent, respectively).
- Graduates of private four-year institutions reported the highest satisfaction levels with regard to preparation upon graduation.
Nearly eight of every 10 college graduates (79 percent) would attend the same undergraduate institution if they could go back and do it all over again.
- Alumni reported a fulfilling academic experience as the number one reason (31 percent) why they would choose to attend the same institution.
- Among those who said they would choose another school if they could go back and begin again, 30 percent cited that their academic experience was not fulfilling or that [their] degree has not helped [them] as much as [they] would like (21 percent). Nearly one in five alumni (19 percent) cited cost of attendance as a reason they would not attend the same institution.
Overwhelmingly, alumni believe that colleges should provide them with critical thinking skills (31 percent) and prepare students for employment (28 percent).
- Far beneath these two dominant issues, preparing students to solve the problems that face our country (17 percent) and preparing students to be responsible citizens (11 percent) were cited as priorities.
- Producing innovations that fuel economic development (6 percent) and serving the community (2 percent) were rarely cited, indicating a potential disconnect in the understanding of the community and economic development role of colleges and universities.
This last finding demonstrates that, while alumni clearly have strong allegiances to their alma maters, there remain some areas of disconnect. Only 32 percent of alumni describe colleges and universities as the primary source of ideas for innovation and solutions. Less than 5 percent of alumni identify serving the community or conducting research to benefit society as an important role for colleges and universities. We know that our institutions are integral to the social fabric and economic engines of the future. Our alumni know we transform lives. As higher education leaders, we must find opportunities to help our graduates see the connections between these two critical functions.
With 91 percent of alumni and 84 percent of all registered voters reporting a favorable view of colleges and universities, higher education is in a unique position to lead from a position of strength. However, numerous challenges remain. The pressures of rising prices on families, declining state and federal budget support, and scrutiny of institutional productivity—as well as the need for innovation to meet modern workforce demands—will continue. U.S. higher education has earned considerable trust from those who know it well. Now is the time to build on that trust to ensure that future graduates will realize even greater success.
Melanie Corrigan is director of national initiatives at the American Council on Education.