No, Half of Young Americans Don't Believe College Is Unnecessary

Headlines about a recent survey of millennials about college and student debt suggest many rethink getting a degree. We explore the actual numbers.

August 12, 2019
 
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The headline is the sort that could send a chill down the spine of college and university administrators. "Half of Young Americans Say College Is No Longer Necessary," blared The New York Post, slightly shortening the title of a Marketwatch article that was also picked up by numerous newspapers and radio stations around the country.

The article summarized a Harris survey of more than 3,000 Americans about college-going, supported by TD Ameritrade, the brokerage firm.

Trouble is, that's not at all what the survey found.

Don't get us wrong: the survey's true results suggest some real doubts on the part of former, current and prospective students (and parents) about the value of higher education, reflecting other signs of public doubts.

Most of the concerns are financial.

  • "Young" millennials (which Harris pegged at those aged 22 to 28) say they are paying two-thirds of the costs of their college education.
  • Forty-six percent said they are paying for their educations with student loans, up seven percentage points from 2017.
  • About a third of millennials say they expect to still be paying off their student debt into their 40s (and 15 percent expect to be doing so after hitting the half-century mark).
  • Roughly three-quarters of millennials say they either chose (or would choose) a less expensive college to avoid debt.
  • Between one and two in five millennials say they have delayed a significant milestone of growing up -- moving out of their parents' home (31 percent), buying a home (47 percent), having children (21 percent), saving for retirement (40 percent) -- because of student debt.

A full quarter of millennials, 26 percent, said they had considered "delaying college due to the expense of paying for it," and nearly a third said they had considered attending a community college instead of pursuing a four-year degree (31 percent) or getting an associate degree instead of a bachelor's degree (30 percent).

And in the closest parallel to the articles' headline, 15 percent of young millennials said they did not expect to attend college or trade school (another 4 percent said they weren't sure, while the rest, 81 percent, said they expected to go).

It was another finding that appears to have inspired the article's headline writer, though. Just under half of millennials, 49 percent, said their degree was "very or somewhat unimportant" in getting them their current job. Fifty-one percent said the degree was very or somewhat important.

"'No longer necessary' refers to the fact that half of young Americans say their degree is not relevant to their job," James Wellemeyer, who wrote the Marketwatch article, said in a direct message on Twitter.

But asked what advice they might give to their "18-year-old self" regarding college, 19 percent recommended working to earn money while in college, and 8 percent said to "take the bare minimum of student loans."

The percentage who said their advice would be "don't go to college"? Five percent.

(Note: Marketwatch updated the headline on its article after Inside Higher Ed inquired about it. The New York Post headline stands.)

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