Public Confidence Wanes on the Value of College, Research Says
Ask elected officials whether more Americans should be going to college and the answer you get will nearly always be an unqualified version of “Yes, absolutely!” But a new study finds that more people are beginning to question the value of college and its return on investment.
There are many reasons politicians laud increased access to college as their default response, and it would be disingenuous not to include the one they cite the most. That’s because research continues to tell us that college represents one of the best pathways for Americans to get ahead and improve their station in life.
Another reason might be that in an economy where most blue-collar jobs that don’t require a college degree have been slowly disappearing, advocating for policies to increase college access and opportunity is one the most simple, easy and effective ways for politicians to signal that they care about the economic hardship of their constituents and have solutions.
But at least some of those constituents may not be as willing to go along with that reasoning.
Survey shows eroding confidence in the value of college
A survey released by Public Agenda in October found that just 42 percent of respondents believe a college education is necessary to success in today’s working world. That represents a 13-point from the 2009 survey. David Schleifer, associate research director at Public Agenda, said the dip probably doesn’t mean that fewer people believe in the value of college but that more are starting to question the tradeoffs in an era of rising student debt, poor graduation rates, and uncertain outcomes.
According to Schleifer, public opinion on the importance of a college education has swung wildly in the past two decades since Public Agenda has been tracking the question. As recently as 2000, only about one-third of respondents said they thought college was necessary, and that percentage had been on a steady rise until this latest survey.
“My gut is I don’t think people have entirely given up on a college education, but are now questioning it more because of the perceived high cost and limited job opportunities,” Schleifer says.
Others also becoming less sure of the value of college
Policy experts have begun to increasingly question whether the return on investment of a college degree is eroding as student loan debt has soared and research has shown large percentages of students who start college never finish. Because an increasing proportion of students rely on borrowing to pay tuition, dropouts wind up carrying large amounts of debt without the benefit of a degree. Daniel Bjarne, CEO of higher education tech company SchoolApply, says increasing costs and decreasing returns are causing students and parents to pay more attention to the financial inputs that go into attending college.
“The return on investment on a college education has been an increasingly bigger focus for many students and their parents,” Bjarne says. “Previously, a good education pretty much guaranteed you a great salary in the future. Nowadays, that’s not necessarily the case.”
The survey didn’t track why respondents answered the way they did, but did ask a series of related questions that hint at broader concerns around student outcomes, college readiness and a business-first, bottom-line mentality on the part of colleges and universities.
Seventy-seven percent of respondents felt that high schools aren’t doing enough to prepare students for college, while 62 percent said it was either “a serious problem” or “a somewhat serious problem” that college students lack the discipline and persistence to finish their degree.
Meanwhile, nearly six out of ten respondents said that colleges today operate like businesses and care mainly about making a profit, though a similar proportion said the same in 2009.
Finally, three out of four respondents said they were in favor of reporting graduation rates at individual universities. These findings come in the context of aggressive efforts by the Obama administration over the past four years to collect and publish student outcome data with online tools like The College Scorecard and harsh oversight of poor performing for-profit universities.
Though the American people largely appear to agree that more information is helpful, support for punishing colleges with low graduation and job placement rates was far less popular, with just 47 percent saying it was a “very good” or “somewhat good” idea. Schleifer says he is unsure why there is a disparity in support between the two answers, but that it is not uncommon for some people to criticize institutions while still supporting them. He pointed out that a large percentage of respondents (23 percent) answered that they were “not sure,” leaving open the possibility that support could rise in the future.
“My sense is that its one thing to ask institutions to publicize how well they’re doing, I think people do kind of pull back at the idea of doing something that could hurt institutions that they may value.”
Will questions about the value of college persist?
As tuition and debt continues to rise at traditional four-year and two-year universities, there is some debate about whether concern over the value of college will push more high school graduates into vocational and career technical education or cause them to eschew higher learning altogether.
“I think more people will start choosing more cost-effective methods of post-secondary education, such as community college and apprenticeships,” Bjarne says. “I doubt that Americans will forgo higher education altogether, because there’s still a strong correlation between higher education/specialized education and higher salaries.”
Schleifer says policymakers interested in boosting educational attainment need to take concerns about cost into account and leave room for alternative forms of education. “I do think that because there are these big goals that the federal government and private foundations have to increase the number of Americans holding a higher education degree…in order to meet those ambitious goals, the traditional model of college is just not going to be the way to get there.
“There are too many students for whom that isn’t going to work.”