Poll: Public sees role for high schools in workforce development

vcuWith many policymakers focused on workforce development as an engine for continued economic growth, a recent poll of Virginians by the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University found a strong majority (63 percent) think that high school graduates are not prepared for the workplace but are prepared for college (64 percent).

The poll also found that more than seven in 10 respondents (72 percent) would support restructuring high school to make employer-aligned skill sets for a student’s desired career the focus of grades 11 and 12. Support for such a shift was strongest among respondents in regions with a larger proportion of rural communities — the west (81 percent in favor), the northwest and south central (both at 77 percent in favor). However, respondents were split evenly on whether they would support a policy requiring eighth graders to develop a career plan.

“Most people don’t think current high school graduates are ready to succeed in the workplace,” said Robyn McDougle, Ph.D., interim executive director of the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute and associate professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU. “For some, attending college is the next key step toward a career, but these responses suggest that the public supports a high school structure that provides career skills that match up with a student’s vision for his or her future and the needs of employers.”

Poll responses also indicate that the public sees community colleges as a key catalyst for workforce readiness with almost three in four members of the public (73 percent) saying community college graduates are ready to join the workforce and 88 percent saying they are ready for a four-year college or university. Seventy-five percent see graduates of four-year colleges and universities as ready to join the workforce.

Strong majorities also say Virginia colleges and universities are doing a good job in four specific outcome areas often mentioned as critical for workforce development:

  • Producing graduates in scientific fields – 72 percent.
  • Preparing students for the workforce needs for the future – 70 percent.
  • Providing the skills that will be useful in obtaining a job – 68 percent.
  • Developing students’ writing and communication skills – 65 percent.

A clear majority (60 percent) of respondents feel that colleges and universities impacted their local economy “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” speaking to the direct role of such institutions in local economies as well as through educational outcomes.

Another key finding of the 2015-16 Commonwealth Education Poll is that a sizable majority (86 percent) either strongly or somewhat support the current policy on sexual assault reporting for college campuses, which was passed by the General Assembly last spring. Parents of Virginia college students (at 65 percent) were more likely to strongly support the current policy than the population overall (58 percent), while younger respondents (ages 18-34) were less likely (47 percent).

“Last spring legislators were under significant pressure to draft new policy to strengthen reporting requirements for sexual assaults on campus,” McDougle said. “They invested significant time and energy in weighing the options and the public clearly supports the result.”

Despite continued media attention on mass shootings in the past year and a painful history with such events on college campuses, a strong majority of Virginians (67 percent) believes that Virginia’s college and university campuses are safe or very safe, with 14 percent saying very safe. This is largely unchanged from 2015 when 66 percent judged campuses safe or very safe. Respondents from Northern Virginia were most likely (75 percent) to think campuses are safe or very safe.

In other findings, the poll shows that a majority of Virginians (57 percent) would be willing for their child to earn some of his or her high school credits via online platforms while only 8 percent would be willing to have their child’s entire high school career be online.

These findings are part of a new statewide survey conducted by VCU. The Commonwealth Education Poll was conducted by landline and cell telephone from Dec. 15-20, 2015, with a random sample of 801 adults in Virginia. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. This poll is conducted annually by VCU’s Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute (CEPI), which is part of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Portions of the poll related to K-12 funding and policy were released on Mon., Jan. 11.

For a PDF of the 33-page report including complete question wording and detailed tables of results see http://cepi.vcu.edu/publications/polls/.

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