U.S. higher education is widely seen as the world’s gold standard, but based on the results of Northeastern University’s second annual national survey on higher education, some rethinking of the model is necessary.

The survey—actually two surveys conducted this summer, one of the general public and another of business leaders—showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe higher education is doing only a fair-to-poor job of preparing graduates for career success. And 87 percent believe higher education must innovate to retain a workforce that is globally competitive.

The results of these surveys were released during a policy summit held in mid-September at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to discuss ways of responding to the findings.

Co-sponsored by Northeastern and the Council on Competitiveness, “Innovation Imperative: Enhancing Higher Education Outcomes,” was moderated by Catherine Rampell, an economics reporter for The New York Times, and featured leaders in higher education, industry, and government. (See the event here.)

Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun made the case for innovation by noting that the traditional model of higher education is geared to a type of student who is now the exception rather than the norm.

About 85 percent of today’s higher-education students are “nontraditional learners,” he said, including part-time students, working professionals, and off-campus learners, and “they are going to force us to think differently.”

The president said the shift can already be seen in the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and online degree programs. Higher education is moving from a teacher-centered approach to a learner-centered approach, he said, a shift that presents both challenges and opportunities for experimentation.

Deborah Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness, echoed Aoun, calling this moment “a real reflection point for all Americans. We need to out-innovate if we’re going to out-compete.”

The discussion explored some of those opportunities. Panelist James Kvaal, deputy director for domestic policy at the White House, pointed to the Obama administration’s new “college score­card” rating system, designed to provide students and their families with more information about college costs and outcomes. He said colleges must be rewarded “for delivering good value … and enrolling students from all types of backgrounds.”

One avenue to improve outcomes, the panelists agreed, lies in expanding education for STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana, said that demand for engineering graduates is growing, noting that, “The market is starting to respond. … We don’t think it’s a short-term phenomenon.”

But, as the survey showed, those newly minted engineers and scientists, as well as graduates in general, need to be well-rounded, with strength in areas such as critical thinking and communication. Jeff Wilcox, corporate vice president for engineering at Lockheed Martin Corporation and an engineer himself, said that greater fluency in the so-called soft skills would make STEM graduates more effective in their fields.

And the survey pointed to another potential area of educational innovation, one aligned to Northeastern’s own model: Nine out of 10 Americans said that students who combine classroom study with experiential learning would have more successful careers in the long term.

›SIDEBAR: What People Think