Posted by: Gregory Linton | 10/13/2016

Pew Research Center study reveals confusion among Americans about the role of college education

On October 6, 2016, Pew Research Center released a major report titled “The State of American Jobs: How the shifting economic landscape is reshaping work and society and affecting the way people think about the skills and training they need to get ahead.” The report is based on a national survey conducted May 25 to June 29, 2016, among 5,006 U.S. adults in association with the Markle Foundation. The report focuses on many topics related to the reshaping of U.S. workplaces as the economy advances into the knowledge-focused age, but I want to focus on the aspects of the report that deal with the role of higher education. The survey shows that the American public is deeply conflicted about the value and role of higher education in preparing graduates for the workplace.

Historical Background of the Debate

For a long time, Americans have debated whether a college education is primarily intended to prepare graduates to function as productive citizens in general or to prepare graduates to implement a specific set of skills in a particular job. For the first 200 years, American higher education sought to inculcate in students the personal qualities and character traits necessary for making positive contributions to their communities and society. Although many students came from more humble circumstances, the student population largely drew from the elite classes. Colleges offered a liberal arts education that provided an expansive knowledge of various fields of human knowledge from the perspective of the Enlightenment. According to R. Geiger, “the curriculum of the colleges in this era was little changed from that of the Middle Ages. Its aim was to provide students with a liberal education, which meant facility with classical languages, grounding in the three basic philosophies of Aristotle—ethics, metaphysics, and natural philosophy or science—and a smattering of general worldly knowledge” (Geiger, 1999, p. 40).  J. R. Thelin says that “the colleges, with their concentration of strong male adults—ministers, alumni, government officials, and tutors—were charged with transforming little boys into little men” (2004, p. 25).

Efforts in the 1820s to reform the college curriculum in a more practical direction resulted in a defense of the classical curriculum in the Yale Report of 1828, which described the typical curriculum as “a bachelor of arts curriculum that emphasized the study of classical languages, science, and mathematics with the aim of building character and promoting distinctive habits of thought” (Thelin, 2004, p. 64). But by the mid-1800s, colleges saw the need to prepare the future workforce with the skills needed to succeed in specific fields. According to Thelin, “curricula were from time to time extended beyond the liberal arts to include medicine, law, engineering, military science, commerce, theology, and agriculture” (2004, p. 42).

As higher education became more accessible to the wider population due to the Morrill Act of 1862 and the Morrill Act of 1890, colleges began developing programs of professional studies to assure prospective students that they would obtain a high-paying job to justify the expense of their education. The Morrill Acts of 1862 allotted federal lands to each state that could be sold for the purpose of funding collegiate programs in agriculture, mechanics, mining, and military training. The democratization of higher education led to greater diversification of the curriculum and specialization of programs. It contributed to the trend of moving the purpose of higher education away from shaping the character of future leaders to preparing graduates for jobs and careers. The Morrill Act of 1890 provided a direct annual infusion of federal cash into the land-grant colleges to bolster and accelerate the utilitarian approaches to education. In the early 1900s, universities continued to add popular programs in business, forestry, home economics, and social work.

For much of this period, professions such as law and medicine did not require college degrees, but beginning with innovations by the Johns Hopkins University in 1876, professional schools began to be incorporated into universities. Over time, these trends progressed to the point that the liberal arts were reduced to a segment of the four-year college curriculum called “general education,” and the focus of the four-year degree shifted to the professional “major.” Consequently, today the foremost question in the minds of many parents of prospective college students is, “How much will my child make when he or she graduates?,” rather than, “What kind of person will my child become?” And many college students complain about having to take general education courses, which they see as irrelevant for their future work.

This utilitarian view of higher education is promoted by the numerous studies of the benefits of higher education that emphasize the financial advantages provided by a college degree. This view is also promoted by the U.S. Department of Education whose College Scorecard focuses almost entirely on the financial benefits of a college degree. Concerns about the financial benefits of a college degree are also raised by the increasing expense.

Results of the Pew Research Center Survey

The survey by Pew Research Center shows that the American public is still divided over the main purpose of college but that most adopt the utilitarian view. Half of the respondents said that college should teach job-related skills, while only 35% said that college should help individuals grow personally and intellectually. The remaining 15% said college should do both.

For those who view college primarily as job preparation, this survey offers several disturbing findings. First, college graduates feel that their education was more effective at developing them personally and intellectually (62%) than providing them with specific job-related skills and knowledge (49%). Only 16% of all Americans think that a four-year degree prepares students very well for a well-paying job in today’s economy, while 51% say that they prepare students somewhat well.

Second, 63% of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education say they will need to keep advancing their skills throughout their career. Consequently, workers with higher levels of education are more likely to engage in job training or acquire job certificates or licenses. These findings suggest that, rather than imparting to graduates specific skills that they need to fulfill a job for years to come, a college education provides a foundation on which lifelong learning can take place. As college speakers often stress at “Commencement” ceremonies, graduation is just the beginning of one’s learning that must continue throughout one’s life.

Third, many college graduates think that their credentials and qualifications do not match up well with their job. When working Americans with bachelor’s degrees were asked if they thought someone with less education could learn to do their job, 65% said “yes.” Only 50% of all workers think that they have the right amount of qualifications for their job, whereas 41% think they have more qualifications than their job requires.

A major emphasis of the Pew Research Center study is that “the fastest growth in employment is in jobs that typically require at least a four-year college degree and considerable to extensive training and experience” (p. 23). It also states that “the relationship between college education and skills suggests that the need for college-educated workers may continue to grow in the future” (p. 29). However, the findings of the study suggest that, if preparation for a job or career is the primary motivation for a college education, many graduates end up disappointed in the outcome.


Geiger, R. (1999). The ten generations of American higher education. In P. G. Altbach, R. O. Berdahl & P. J. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political, and economic challenges (pp. 38-69). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pew Research Center. (2016, October). “The State of American Jobs: How the shifting economic landscape is reshaping work and society and affecting the way people think about the skills and training they need to get ahead.” Retrieved from

Thelin, J. R. (2004). A history of American education. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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