As many pol­i­cy­makers and busi­ness leaders advance the need for edu­ca­tion focused on sci­ence, tech­nology, engi­neering, and math, a new national survey reveals that most Amer­i­cans, and par­tic­u­larly hiring decision-​​makers, believe that broadly applic­able skills such as writing and problem-​​solving are prefer­able to spe­cific industry expertise.

According to the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity survey, nearly two-​​thirds of Amer­i­cans (65 per­cent) and almost three-​​quarters of hiring decision-​​makers (73 per­cent) believe that being well-​​rounded with a range of knowl­edge is more impor­tant than pos­sessing industry-​​specific skills.

The survey find­ings also pro­vide a wake-​​up call for leaders of col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties on the impor­tant issue of higher edu­ca­tion out­comes. Almost two-​​thirds (62 per­cent) of Amer­i­cans say that the higher edu­ca­tion system is doing a “fair” or “poor” job of preparing recent col­lege grad­u­ates for the workforce.

How­ever, Amer­i­cans con­tinue to believe higher edu­ca­tion is crit­ical to achieving career suc­cess. A large majority (70 per­cent) say that a person’s level of edu­ca­tion is the most impor­tant factor in a job candidate’s suc­cess in the employ­ment market. Nearly three in four Amer­i­cans (74 per­cent) believe that a col­lege degree is more impor­tant today than it was for their par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion, by far exceeding other fac­tors such as cur­rent eco­nomic con­di­tions, socioe­co­nomic status, nation­ality, and race.

As the nation turns its focus to higher edu­ca­tion out­comes, we see that the Amer­ican system has many strengths, but also many oppor­tu­ni­ties for improve­ment and inno­va­tion,” said Joseph E. Aoun, pres­i­dent of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “The best attrib­utes of Amer­ican higher education—its diver­sity and com­pet­i­tive dynamic—are pre­cisely the qual­i­ties that will lead to much-​​needed innovations.”

Amer­i­cans see a shared respon­si­bility when it comes to preparing recent grad­u­ates for suc­cess. They believe the number one reason for employers strug­gling to find qual­i­fied job can­di­dates is that com­pa­nies do not invest enough in training new hires. How­ever, hiring decision-​​makers say that col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are not in tune with industry needs and not preparing grad­u­ates accord­ingly. In fact, 55 per­cent of busi­ness leaders sur­veyed say their firms have trained recent col­lege grad­u­ates on skills they should have learned at an aca­d­emic institution.

Con­sis­tent with the find­ings of last year’s North­eastern survey, Amer­i­cans strongly sup­port expe­ri­en­tial learning in which a student’s class­room edu­ca­tion is inte­grated with pro­fes­sional work expe­ri­ence. Nearly nine in 10 Amer­i­cans (89 per­cent) believe that stu­dents with work expe­ri­ence related to their field of study are more suc­cessful employees—and nearly three in four hiring decision-​​makers (74 per­cent) agree. Among those that gained work expe­ri­ence during col­lege, a large majority (82 per­cent) says it was valu­able for their per­sonal and pro­fes­sional development.

A declining per­centage of Amer­i­cans say that online edu­ca­tion pro­vides the same quality as tra­di­tional in-​​class learning. In Northeastern’s 2012 national survey, 49 per­cent responded that online pro­grams “pro­vide a sim­ilar quality of edu­ca­tion,” while just 41 per­cent agreed with this state­ment in this year’s poll. Yet, more than half of Amer­i­cans (52 per­cent) believe that online edu­ca­tion will be just as accepted by employers in five to seven years. Forty-​​nine per­cent of hiring decision-​​makers agree. There is con­sensus among Amer­i­cans and busi­ness leaders that Mas­sive Open Online Courses will fun­da­men­tally trans­form the way stu­dents are edu­cated, but less than one-​​third believe MOOCs pro­vide the same quality of edu­ca­tion as tra­di­tional, in-​​person courses.

Other note­worthy findings:

  • A strong majority of hiring decision-makers (87 percent) believe teaching students about entrepreneurship, including how to start their own businesses, is important to prepare students for the workforce.
  • A majority of Americans (64 percent) believe the federal government should grant visas to international students who graduate college in the U.S. so they can remain in the country and work, while only 41 percent of hiring decision-makers agree.
  • Although only a small percentage of Americans surveyed have studied or worked abroad in college, the majority of them (66 percent) believe that global experience was valuable for their personal and professional development. While most Americans (58 percent) believe that students with global experience are generally more successful employees, only 39 percent of hiring decision-makers agree.

The survey results will be released Tuesday morning at The National Press Club in Wash­ington, D.C., where North­eastern will host its second annual summit on the issues facing higher edu­ca­tion. This year’s event, Inno­va­tion Imper­a­tive: Enhancing Higher Edu­ca­tion Out­comes, fea­tures a high-​​profile panel of experts and a keynote address by Pres­i­dent Aoun.

Mod­er­ated by Catherine Ram­pell of The New York Times, the panel includes Mitchell E. Daniels, pres­i­dent of Purdue Uni­ver­sity; James Kvaal, deputy director for domestic policy at the White House; Jeff Wilcox, cor­po­rate vice pres­i­dent for engi­neering at Lock­heed
Martin Cor­po­ra­tion; and Deb­orah L. Wince-​​Smith, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Council on Com­pet­i­tive­ness. Watch the summit online here begin­ning at 9 a.m.

The poll find­ings are based on 1,000 tele­phone inter­views of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of Amer­ican adults con­ducted Aug. 16–28. The margin of error for the national survey is 3.1 percent.

Addi­tion­ally, more than 260 hiring decision-​​makers were polled online July 10–15. This sample included exec­u­tives from a cross-​​section of employers nation­wide, ranging from small com­pa­nies to larger busi­nesses with a global presence.

The survey was con­ducted for North­eastern by FTI Con­sulting, a global busi­ness advi­sory firm that pro­vides mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary solu­tions to com­plex chal­lenges and opportunities.

Detailed infor­ma­tion is avail­able at north​eastern​.edu/​i​n​n​o​v​a​t​i​o​n​s​u​r​vey.