WASHINGTON – Most Americans are open to redesigning today’s higher education system to expand access and affordability, a new poll suggested Tuesday.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans believe students should earn college credit for skills they learn outside of the classroom, according to the Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll. Seventy percent said students should earn credits based on their mastery of content, rather than their time spent in the classroom.

“There’s a lot of will around higher education, but we need to help to find the ways to get there,” Valerie Calderon, director of the Gallup Student Poll, said in presenting the poll Tuesday.

The findings come at a time when 74 percent agree that college isn’t affordable for all who want it.

For many, enrolling in college would be a more attractive option if they could receive credit for skills they already have. Three-quarters of those surveyed agreed with that proposition.

The current higher education system does not meet the needs of many college students today, who do not enroll directly out of high school, said Michelle Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, during a panel discussion.

“The model that we’re using is a model based in the traditional model of higher education,” Cooper said. “We need to think about education in a different way.”

In the panel discussion, Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, advocated a fundamental change: breaking away from the credit-hour system that defines most colleges. Generally, a credit hour represents one hour of class per week for one term.

LeBlanc, whose not-for-profit university provides online education in New England, touted the benefits of a competency-based program such as the one the New Hampshire school has put in place. The program, which offers a two-year associate degree, has no classes or credit hours. Instead, it requires students to master 120 competencies through tasks reviewed by faculty.

While LeBlanc said he does not want to entirely toss out the existing higher education system, he stressed that the U.S. Department of Education should create “breathing space” for the experimentation of new models.

“Once we free ourselves from the credit hour, we open up all sorts of interesting opportunities to think differently,” he said.

But not all higher education experts were convinced by the validity of some of the survey’s findings. Sanford Ungar, the president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Md., said the findings should be viewed with more nuance, especially those concerning college affordability.

Ungar, an audience member who spoke during a question-and-answer session, said, “To have people who have been excluded and disadvantaged in the higher education system asked whether it should be less expensive is interesting but not substantively meaningful.”

The poll was based on a telephone survey of 1,009 American adults from November to December 2012; it has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.