The vast majority of Americans feel it is better for some students to go to community college instead of a four-year school, according to a new poll by The Associated Press and Stanford University released Tuesday.
Respondents rated community colleges as excellent or good at nearly the same rate as four-year schools, showing Americans are generally pleased with two-year colleges. Seventy-one percent said it's sometimes better for students to pursue a diploma or certificate from a two-year school than aim to enter a four-year college.
"That's an important breakthrough," said Stanford researcher Michael Kirst. "But the results ought to be somewhat troubling to people who want to reform community colleges. If the public does not think there's a major problem with an institution, it's often difficult to mobilize the political will to change it."
The results come as President Obama and education leaders from across the country gather in Washington, D.C., this week for a summit on community colleges, hoping to bring more attention to the often stigmatized schools. Obama wants the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
He's got his work cut out for him: Just 35 percent of community college students and 60 percent of students at four-year institutions graduate with diplomas each year, Kirst said.
Larry Wyse of Archbold, Ohio, who was interviewed for the poll, said he gets frustrated with the mindset that every student should attend a four-year college. The former public school teacher who has run a heating repair and plumbing business for the last 27 years said trade workers like him are not viewed as equitable with bankers or computer engineers.
"Not every student who graduates from high school has the capability or the financial means or the intestinal fortitude that it takes to complete a four-year degree," said Wyse, who has a bachelor's degree in mathematics. "There are a lot of skilled trade and technical service type jobs that are begging for applicants."
In the poll, a much higher percent of blacks and Hispanics — who are more likely than whites to enroll in a two-year college — say four-year schools are the better option. The numbers reveal a disconnect between where minority students want to go to college and where they often end up, Kirst said.
Forty-three percent of minorities say it's always better to try to get into a four-year college, compared with just 17 percent of whites.
Overall, nearly 70 percent of respondents said the quality of education at community colleges is excellent or good. When asked whether colleges prepare students for the work force, 62 percent said yes for community colleges and 68 percent said yes for four-year schools.
The poll was conducted Sept. 23-30 by Abt SRBI Inc. It involved telephone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
The poll was funded in part by a grant to Stanford from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.