Education is said to be the passport to the future. Yet at the same time, there are lots of critical voices about the education system. 1,000+ Americans told us what they think.
Einstein once said that education is what remains with you after you’ve forgotten everything you learned at school. But is this true today? After all, it’s been more than half a century since Einstein’s death, so maybe schools have changed in the meantime, and they do a good job educating?
In the wake of COVID-19, the subject of education seemed interesting enough for us to survey over 1,000 Americans and learn what they thought. Do the subjects we learn at school come in handy later in life? Can education shift entirely to the remote model? These are only some of the questions we explored. Read on to find out more.
Chalk Dust Torture
We decided to start with an earthquake—just like a good study should—and asked our respondents if they believed that the education they received at school was quite useless. With so many voices critical of what modern-day schooling looks like, we expected the vast majority to be rather inclined towards the “useless” option.
We were wrong.
Only slightly over 25% of our respondents agreed that education was useless, while almost 56% said it was useful. Of course, our survey was asking people about education in its most straightforward form, i.e. what you’re taught at school, not in the context of Einstein’s flippant definition.
But there’s more.
We wanted to know what our respondents who attended or graduated from college felt about the importance of having a diploma. To our surprise, it turned out that the attitudes towards this issue looked almost the same as the attitudes towards education in general.
Only less than 25% admitted that having a diploma was good for nothing.
Unsurprisingly, those respondents who work in the education industry were the least likely to say that education was useless—74% disagreed with the statement. Only about 14% of them didn’t see the point of having a college diploma. Clearly, they’ve got the wrong calling but at least they’re in a minority.
There was also a visible difference between the genders.
It seems women see more value in graduating from college. This is in line with the findings from the National Center for Education Statistics which show that more women than men enroll in postsecondary education institutions.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of our respondents (90%) either attended or graduated from college or university.
This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave
The role of education is to qualify people for work and help them integrate into society. But the times, they are a-changing—what looked like science fiction back in the early 2000s has become our reality. Does the education system keep up?
Our respondents’ opinions were quite divided.
The same number believed this wasn’t the case, and 20% didn’t have any strong opinion.
Again, it was interesting to see what those who work in education thought. Our results showed that slightly over 30% of educators do believe the system calls for an overhaul, while as many as 53% didn’t consider it outdated.
While it would be unfair to say that nothing has changed in schools over the past several decades, the truth is the current education model with large groups of students being taught standardized material by a single teacher has been around for about 150 years. Maybe the split results from the lack of any viable alternatives? Or maybe not. One of the offshoots of the COVID-19 situation is that more people than ever before had an opportunity to get the taste of remote education.
But what do people think of this kind of setup? This is exactly what prompted us to ask if a large chunk of education can be done remotely without attending classes physically. As many as 70% of our respondents agreed and only 10% were of a different opinion. Could this mean we’re about to boldly step into the era of widespread remote education? Well, the transition might not be that easy.
It’s worth noting that no other professional group came close to 10% in this respect.
Also, even though about 57% of educators agree that a large number of classes can be moved to the online dimension, it’s the only group whose members display such low support for the solution.
Surprisingly, the professional groups whose support for remote classes is higher than the average all belong to the industries where the ROI metric is always at the back of the mind—manufacturing, retail/wholesale, and business/finance (78%, 77%, and 76% respectively).
What I Go To School For
So, what’s wrong with education—is it the people who are the weakest link or is it the system itself? Is anything wrong with it in the first place? To find out, we started by asking a blunt question: Were your teachers incompetent? And… well, what would you have said?
Luckily, our survey shows that most people didn’t have incompetent teachers.
Interestingly, it turns out that men are twice as likely as women to admit their teachers weren’t competent. Among our respondents, 13% of women admitted they dealt with poor quality teachers, while among men the number was twice as high—26%. However, we’re not entirely sure this tells us more about teachers or our male respondents.
And one more thing.
The perceived incompetence of teachers could be contributing to people’s decisions about whether or not to pursue higher education. We noticed that among those respondents whose highest education level was high school, 32% believed their teachers were incompetent. Among those who either attended or graduated from college, about 20% thought the same. In other words, more people who believed their teachers to be competent ended up in colleges.
Competence aside, teachers can do things that we’ll remember for a long time. Our respondents were given an opportunity to tell us what they regarded as the worst thing a teacher of theirs did. Here’s a look into some of their answers:
What Was the Worst Thing a Teacher of Yours Did?
- “Decried my fascination with Linux.”
- “Didn’t teach real-world skills like how to budget, pay bills, or do taxes.”
- “Failed to teach me algebra.”
- “Had us watch YouTube videos rather than teach any challenging content.”
- “History teacher was too stuck on the past, I understand history is important but needs to be class on future and present.”
- “I remember a math teacher who had ‘favorites’ who took to the subject with ease. Those who struggled received little help.”
- “Let us watch movies for 2 weeks straight.”
- “Read off of the slides.”
- “She focused too much time and attention on one or two of her favorite students and kind of ignored the rest of the class.”
- “Told me I am not capable to make it in the future.”
Now, to explore people’s opinions on the education system, we asked our respondents to evaluate the usefulness of subjects commonly taught in high schools from the perspective of having a successful and well-paid professional career.
This is very much in line with the results of a 2016 LinkedIn survey of hiring managers which indicated that communication skills are the most in-demand soft skills that employers look for in candidates. Computer science classes ranked second with roughly 77% of respondents admitting the subject is useful. Maths came in third with almost 73%.
We didn’t end here, though. We asked our respondents with the tertiary education experience to share their opinion on which majors they believe to ensure a successful career. Here, computer sciences took the lead with over 83% of respondents indicating it as a major with the largest potential, followed by nursing (75%), and chemical engineering (75%). Interestingly, all three majors indicated by our respondents made it into the top ten highest paying majors in a 2018 Glassdoor report.
If you think about it, there’s one conclusion that springs to mind immediately—STEM. People seem to be intuitively pointing at the subjects and majors within the domains of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as the ones that are most likely to secure a successful and well-paid career.
All this looks great but remember that we’re talking about people who already finished their education. The problem is that the young have a limited knowledge about subject requirements and activities a career in STEM involves—just like a 2018 paper by Karen A. Blotnicky published in International Journal of STEM Education revealed. If you don’t know what options you have or what is required of you to pursue a STEM career, you’re likely to make a decision that you’ll come to regret in the future.
So it looks like there’s room for educators to help the young make informed choices about their future careers.
If I Could Turn Back Time
No, we can’t turn back time to find our way again. But we can always look at what we did in the past and consider whether or not we would’ve done this again. That’s exactly what we asked our respondents to do.
But before we tell you what the results were, let’s have a look at what other studies say about the factors that influence your wealth and success. For example, a recent paper on the link between education and earnings shows that education contributes to numerous beneficial socio-economic outcomes in the long run. Likewise, a 2015 study from the Social Security Administration showed a correlation between college education and higher lifetime earnings.
Honestly, we have no way of knowing if our respondents are familiar with the results of these and similar studies, but the answers we collected show two prevailing trends.
And if our study had to be limited to one single takeaway point, it would be exactly this—learn more and get a job sooner.
But, as we mentioned before, it’s crucial to know what options you have and what requirements you’ll have to meet. Why? Well, let the numbers speak for themselves:
Finally, we set out to explore whether the educational background of our respondents was actually useful for their professional careers. In short, yes. At least most of the time.
In the IT industry, as many as 75% of respondents reported that their educational background is helpful. The education industry ranked second with almost 74%, followed by the healthcare sector with 70% of respondents admitting that the education they received comes in handy.
The retail/wholesale industry is where people rely on their education the least—with just under 50% saying their education helps them.
At this point, we know that more often than not education is important. However, as we go through it, we tend to forget about this. The realization that we’ve actually learned something useful often comes when all of a sudden something we were taught at school or college comes in handy in the least expected moment. About 40% of our respondents experienced such a moment of illumination—they were surprised that something they learned found application in a real-life situation they were dealing with.
What were these things? Here’s a selection of some of the more interesting answers:
What Did You Learn at School That You Were Surprised to Find Useful Later in Life?
- “Don’t count on others to have your best interests at heart.”
- “How to use the binomial formula.”
- “I recently used some physics formulas I used in a civil engineering course to figure out how much stress a shed roof beam could take.”
- “I took a class on ethics and found the information very useful when I was dealing with a difficult situation at work. I remembered certain information from that class, which helped me see that person in a different light.”
- “I was very well prepared because one class, in particular, went over how to teach children to read and it has helped me so much throughout my career. I am better at teaching reading than all the teachers in my school. It is all because of this one teacher who taught us everything she learned and she was right.”
- “How to write a resume and a cover letter.”
- “My math courses became very important when I started estimating house plans, and the geometry that I’d hated so much came into play a lot.”
- “Typing and simple math skills.”
And finally, we’ve all been made to learn some things that we thought were useless and… turned out to be useless, but they’ve just stuck with us. Have a look at a selection of bits of useless knowledge that our respondents shared:
What Was the Most Pointless Thing You Were Made to Learn at School?
- “A professor had us do a mental exercise about what it would be like if we had full tails instead of the vestigial tail bone we still have.”
- “Different types of rocks.”
- “Electives: soccer, yoga, canoeing. Those are things I don’t need to learn/pay for in college but had to in order to get elective credits.”
- “History of the Aztecs.”
- “Home economics, which was more cooking than anything else.”
- “How it felt to walk on peas in socks to simulate tissue loss in the elderly.”
- “How to write a ‘DOS computer language script’ to roll a dice with a random answer… or something ridiculous… for ‘elementary education’.”
- “I learned how to dissect a frog.”
- “Learning about cactus.”
- “Learning how to use a graphing calculator. We each had to buy our own, which back then was expensive. And it had to be this certain model. And then we spent countless classes graphing on the things.”
- “Mandatory health class. It was a joke to pad the jocks’ GPA. I didn’t need to go to college to learn to drink water and use condoms. It was embarrassingly unsuited for a serious academic environment. Essentially, it was an extension of high school.”
- “My social media marketing class consisted of 5 homework assignments. The assignments were finding news articles and posting them to our personal social media accounts such as Facebook and screenshotting it to show we could do it… Such a waste of money.”
- “Oddly enough, the computer courses that I took were a waste of time because they were all out of date by the time I graduated.”
- “That antidisestablishmentarianism was the longest word in the dictionary.”
- “Canterbury Tales”
COVID-19 and the Environment for Education
Last but not least, we used the opportunity that our survey provided us with to ask Americans about their attitudes towards tuition fees in the light of the coronavirus-forced lockdown of educational institutions. The results only proved what the vast majority of Americans feel like—
There was one more question we felt compelled to ask Should colleges reopen in the fall regardless of how the COVID-19 scenario unfolds? The answers we got showed that society is pretty much split on the issue with 56% of respondents saying they should reopen and 44% opting for the colleges to stay closed.
Our study shows that despite some visible flaws in the system, the majority of people see education as an important factor in shaping their future careers.
More than that, an overwhelming majority of respondents would study more (95%) and get a job sooner (81%) rather than drop out of college or high school if they were given a chance to have a fresh start.
What’s really important, though, is for school children to get all the necesssary information about the possibilities offered by STEM careers as well as the requirements they entail. It’s crucial for two main reasons. One, school kids don’t have enough knowledge to make informed decisions. Two, a bad decision may lead to a career regret—55% of our respondents admitted they’d like to have pursued a different career if they could.
So, if you’re are still in school or college, do your homework and see what career you’d really like to pursue. And remember that 95% of people say they’d be learning more if they could move back in time. So, think about it next time you’re planning to party.
For this study, we collected answers from 1,056 respondents through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Our sample’s average age was 38 with a standard deviation of 12 and consisted of 55.6% men and 44.4% women.
This self-report study probed into people’s attitudes towards education’s importance for a successful and well-paid professional career. Respondents were asked 25 questions, most of which were scale-based or multiple choice. As experience is subjective, we understand that some participants and their answers might have been affected by recency, attribution, or exaggeration bias. However, given the gender and age makeup of our sample, as well as the fact that the official labor force participation rate in July 2019 was 63%, the study can be generalized to the entire population.
ABOUT JEFF ALTMAN, THE BIG GAME HUNTER
Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. His work involves career coaching, all as well as executive job search coaching, job coaching, and interview coaching. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 1900 episodes, and is a member of The Forbes Coaches Council.
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