Despite Positive Experiences, Students Question Value of College

Survey finds students support their institutions and mostly plan to re-enroll -- but increasingly doubt whether education is worth the price.

July 7, 2021
 
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Even more than usual, college leaders are eager to get into the minds of their current and would-be students, to try to understand how the upheaval and uncertainty of the last 15 months have altered their expectations about their educations. A slew of surveys (including Inside Higher Ed's own) have revealed students to be somewhat unsatisfied with their college experiences, whether they were remote or in person, but to generally believe that their institutions and professors did as well as they could given the circumstances. And most say they plan to continue their educations.

The latest such survey largely reinforces that trend line -- but includes some potentially worrying data for those concerned by growing public questioning of the value of a college degree.

The survey from Third Way and New America, two left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based think tanks, is the third in a series conducted since the pandemic. It covers a wide range of issues, but the focus of this article is on the students' impressions of their learning and overall experiences in the last year and their views of their institutions and educations. Many of its findings will hearten college faculty members and administrators.

Roughly eight in 10 students surveyed in May gave their colleges and universities positive assessments on a range of fronts during the pandemic, including delivering a high-quality education, caring about students and their safety, and communicating clearly. The proportions fell below 75 percent when students were asked whether their institution cares about students like them, and to about two-thirds on issues such as being transparent about tuition and fees or how it will spend COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government.

Students expressed reservations about the quality of the virtual instruction they received during the pandemic, with nearly six in 10 students (57 percent) agreeing that online education is "worse" than in-person instruction (16 percent disagreed) and roughly three-quarters agreeing that online higher education should be less expensive than in-person instruction. Students who described themselves as caregivers, by comparison, were split on whether online education was of lower quality.

Nonetheless, students do not appear inclined to abandon virtual instruction. Only a quarter of all students said they would prefer to take all their courses in person in the upcoming academic year, while a third said they'd prefer to study entirely online, and the rest preferred a mix. In December, 40 percent said they'd prefer to take all their courses online.

On the all-important question of whether students planned to continue their educations this fall, 85 percent of students said they would (68 percent said they were "very likely"). That is down from 90 percent in the iteration of the survey conducted in December, driven by significant drops for Latinx (to 59 percent very likely from 68 percent) and Black students (to 60 percent very likely from 67 percent).

A smaller survey of 200 high school seniors found that the pandemic had made them slightly more likely to enroll than they were pre-pandemic, but more of them said they planned to enroll in two-year institutions than was true in December (20 percent versus 13 percent).

Perhaps the most distressing (or at least confounding) data of all for college officials, though, were in students' responses about the value of college.

Three-quarters of students agreed that their degree would be worth the same as if they had received it before the pandemic, up several percentage points from their answer in December.

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But when presented with a more general statement -- "higher education is not worth the cost to students anymore" -- nearly two-thirds agreed, up from just under half in the first such survey last August.

The fact that students think their own degrees are still valuable but believe higher education is generally "not worth the cost" suggests a pricing problem -- that even if the degrees are valuable, students think they're paying too much for it.

But it also may be that as in many surveys, respondents think they've made sound decisions themselves but question the choices or behavior of others.

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