Not All Americans Think College Is Worth It

Political party, age and income level play a role in whether Americans believe a bachelor's degree is worth the time and money.

September 13, 2021
 
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Soon-to-be graduates from Northeastern University attend commencement.

Is a college education worth the investment?

Despite empirical evidence that shows it is, the American public has its doubts.

Six in 10 American adults say that a college degree is worth the time and money, according to a survey released today from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Bipartisan Policy Center. The survey, which queried 2,200 American adults between March 3 and 5 of this year, found that Americans' opinions on the value of a college degree vary greatly by political affiliation, age and income level.

Wealthy and college-educated Americans are more likely to say a college degree is "definitely" or "probably" worth it, the survey showed. About three quarters of such adults endorse the value of a college degree. By comparison, only half of adults without a college degree or who earn less than $50,000 per year say the same.

Percentages of American adults who believe a college degree is worth the investment / Courtesy of the Association of American Colleges & Universities

Republicans and Democrats showed a similar split in opinion. Seven in 10 Democrats say that a college degree is "definitely" or "probably" worth it, compared with only 53 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of independents.

Opinions about the value of a college degree also vary by age. About 61 percent of adults born between 1997 and 2012 -- Gen Z -- and 63 percent of adults born between 1981 and 1996 -- millennials -- are more likely to say college is "definitely" or "probably" worth the investment. About 54 percent of Gen Xers -- adults born between 1965 and 1980 -- and 59 percent of baby boomers -- adults born between 1946 and 1964 -- say the same.

Despite mixed public opinion on the topic, a college degree will almost certainly translate into higher earnings, said Ashley Finley, vice president of research and senior advisor to the president for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"Any way you slice it, the probability that you will make a return on your investment is there," she said.

Higher education has an image problem, not an evidence problem, Finley said. Public disdain for elitism and liberalism in higher education and media stories that focus on extreme cases of student debt have pushed the idea that college isn't worthwhile for everyone.

"There is this persistent public narrative out there that it's too expensive -- 'you're [still] going to flip burgers at McDonald's, you're going to end up at Starbucks,'" she said. "Never before has higher education been faced with the narrative that higher education isn't valued, that it's not worth the time and the money."

Finley thinks this messaging is dangerous because it could dissuade low-income and first generation college students who would benefit from a degree from pursuing higher education at all.

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"That's not a narrative that's going to disadvantage students from wealthier socioeconomic classes -- they will always have the opportunity to go to college," Finley said. "When we talk about for whom it's worth your time and money, we are talking about lower income portions of the population, which of course have always correlated with race and have always correlated with first generation students."

Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, agrees that low-income and first-generation students should not be dissuaded from pursuing a college degree.

"The fact that a lot of [Americans] recognize you don't have to get a four-year degree is healthy, but I worry about who recognizes that. Are they people who think a four-year degree is necessary for their kid, but not for somebody else's kid? Are they less advantaged people who are looking at debt and cost and thinking, 'I can't afford a four year degree'?'" Carnevale said. "That is not good. We're going to continue to segregate the system."

Survey respondents were asked about the importance of a well-rounded education and technical skills to long-term career success. An equal proportion of American adults underscored the importance of each. So did employers; in a separate AAC&U survey, 52 percent of employers said a well-rounded education and technical skills were essential to career success.

Though STEM education is growing in popularity, only a third of American adults say that exposure to STEM fields is important to career success. Those responses vary by political affiliation as well -- 39 percent of Democrats emphasized the importance of STEM education, compared with 25 percent of Republicans.

Percent of Americans by political affiliation who believe that fostering a sense of social justice is important to long-term career success / Courtesy of the American Association of Colleges & Universities

The survey also asked respondents about civic engagement and social justice in a college education. Responses to these questions were strongly divided by political affiliation. Just under half of Democrats -- 45 percent -- said that fostering a sense of social justice was important to long-term career success, compared with 28 percent of independents and only 19 percent of Republicans.

"It's unsurprising in some ways that younger voters and more left-leaning voters think about things like civic engagement and equity and justice more than conservative or older voters," said Kevin Miller, associate director of higher education at the Bipartisan Policy Center and co-author of the survey report. "There's some generational shifts happening in terms of how people see education, which is one of the things that the survey results are getting at. Younger folks are more likely to see education as feeding into ideas of equity and justice, and that's a relatively new idea for a lot of people."

Miller said colleges and universities should be encouraged by the fact that most Americans still view a college degree as worthwhile. That said, they should also take public concerns about higher education seriously because they are often rooted in people's lived experience.

"People's opinions about higher ed are based, at least to some extent, in realities and very legitimate concerns about the affordability of college," he said.

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