The notion of “college for all”—typically part of a broader education model in which nearly all students move as if on a conveyor belt from elementary to high school to college and a degree and then, finally, to a career—continues to hold considerable sway in policy circles. Elected leaders annually spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars supporting this model, despite evidence that it’s disconnected from today’s world of education, training, and work.

To better understand American public opinion about the ends and value of higher education, we can turn to two national representative surveys conducted last November by American Compass and YouGov—the first of 1,000 parents with school-age or graduated children ages 12 to 30, the second of 1,000 young adults ages 18 to 30. The surveys revealed three areas of unexpected consensus between the parents and the young adults. (Full disclosure: The foundation at which I work provides funding to American Compass and I have written articles for the group’s website.)

First, both groups are uncertain about what higher education offers.

Participants reviewed a list of ten purported strengths of the American college and university system. When they were asked to select each one they considered a major strength of the system, neither group gave majority support to any of the options.

The highest number of parents agreed it is a major strength of American colleges and universities to be “hubs of scientific discovery and technological innovation” (40 percent), while the greatest share of young adults considered providing opportunities “to explore identities and discover authentic selves” (44 percent) a major strength.

The lowest-performing strength for parents was “colleges provide a safe environment for young adults to experience living away from home” (15 percent), while for young adults it was “college athletics create an essential feeling of pride and belonging for students and alumni” (20 percent).

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