Not Worth It?

New data from Gallup-Purdue survey find only half of alumni "strongly agree" that college is worth what they spent. Students with experiential learning opportunities and supportive professors were more likely to agree.

September 29, 2015

Just half of college alumni “strongly agree” that their education was worth what they paid for it, according to the newest data from an ongoing Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates.

The survey -- which is the largest of its kind and annually polls a nationally representative sample of about 30,000 college alumni -- attempts to measure whether colleges are doing enough to help students’ well-being in life after they graduate by asking questions about how engaged they are at work. This year the survey went further, adding in new questions asking if alumni felt college was “worth it." Graduates were asked to rate on a  five point scale how much they agreed with the statement "My education from [University Name] was worth the cost."

Half of all graduates said they strongly agreed that college was worth the price, with little variation among private and public institutions. Only 26 percent of alumni from for-profit colleges strongly agreed with the statement.

“Given the value we as a country place on education, you would expect that we would have a much higher percentage who say they definitely agree with that statement,” Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education and Workforce Development, said. “We’re talking about graduates of all ages. That was a real shocker to me.”

Less surprising, Busteed said, was how younger graduates and those with large amounts of student debt felt about the question.

Alumni who graduated between 2006 and 2015, and thus into a less stable employment market, were less likely to agree that college was worth the price. About 38 percent of those graduates strongly agreed with the statement.

Among graduates who took out student loans of any amount, 33 percent said they strongly agreed that their education was worth what they spent. As their amount of student debt increased, the graduates were less likely to see the value of their education. About 43 percent of graduates who borrowed $25,000 or less strongly agreed that college was worth what they paid. For those who borrowed between $25,001 and $50,000, 30 percent strongly agreed with the statement.

Among alumni who were in more than $50,000 of debt, only 18 percent said they strongly agreed that college was worth their investment.

If those graduates recalled “supportive relationships with professors and mentors,” however, they were twice as likely to say their education was worth the price. Nearly 50 percent of students who graduated with $25,000 or more in student debt said they strongly agreed that college was worth it if they had those kinds of relationships, the survey found. For recent graduates with high debt who could not recall having a supportive relationship with a professor or staff member, only 25 percent strongly agreed.

“That’s such a fascinating point, because that’s telling us that if we place more value and emphasis on that kind of support, it makes a very real difference,” Busteed said.

Also making a difference, the survey found, is the amount of experiential learning opportunity a student has while in college. If recent graduates had experienced either “an internship related to their studies, active involvement in extracurricular activities or a project that took a semester or more to complete,” they were 1.5 times more likely to strongly agree that their education was worth their expenditures.

The findings were similar to what the survey found last year, its initial year, when it first asked about well-being and workplace engagement.

If working graduates remember having had a professor who cared about them, made them excited to learn or encouraged them to follow their dreams -- which Gallup called being "emotionally supported" while in college -- the graduates’ odds of being engaged at work more than doubled.

Graduates whose college experiences included the aforementioned forms of "experiential and deep learning" were twice as likely to be engaged in their work. But only 3 percent of graduates said they had all six of the formative college experiences that meant they had both emotional support and deep learning.

“Deep experiential learning is really important, but it’s not as simple as just having a paid job or internship,” Busteed said. “It needs to be work where you’re really applying what you’re learning. I think even if an individual professor just thought carefully about the job or internship the student was going to have over a summer, the two could come up with examples of how to tie their learning into that experience. It has a profound impact.”


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