Does a college education have value? Only 60% of Americans say yes

But employers say it is critical to future workers' success.
By: | September 13, 2021
Adobe Stock

Who believes a college education is worth the cost? Not all Americans.

In a policy brief released on Monday, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Bipartisan Policy Center noted that while most employers agree post-secondary paths have value, the public is squarely divided across socioeconomic and political lines.

Only 60% of the 2,200 adults polled in early March said higher education possesses the best track to future success. By contrast, nearly 90% of the 496 business leaders surveyed said credentials and degrees are essential.

“Obtaining a college degree is still the single most effective means for achieving economic mobility in the United States,” said AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella. “But this report demonstrates that we have work to do in messaging how a college credential leads to career success, particularly for vulnerable populations of students who might already think a college education is out of reach. The road ahead demands that we build the most diverse and inclusive workforce possible.”

Getting there has been a challenge. The costs of an education—skyrocketing tuition, fees and housing expenses along with soaring debt over the past two decades—have prompted many to question why entering the workforce via other paths might not be more efficient and more prudent.

From the survey, only 27% of all adults feel a college education is “definitely worth it.” Another 33% say it’s “probably worth it,” while close to 30% say it is definitely not worth it. Another 10% simply don’t know. As with other similar surveys, it is clear that individuals expect more than ever to see a return on investment when considering post-secondary paths. A high-priced education devoid of the development of real-world skills likely won’t cut it.

In fact, the majority of adults who were polled say they believe building critical thinking and communication skills is essential as they prepare for the workplace of the future. More than half list being able to problem-solve as a top priority. Colleges and universities that can best align their offerings with those skills—and not just a focus on STEM, for example—not only will be in the best position to attract students but will also prepare them to meet the needs of employers, who have been struggling to find workers with relevant credentials during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than half of employers agree that well-rounded employees are best.

Despite agreement on skills necessary to be able to find and remain in good jobs, survey responders were nonetheless divided on whether college would be the best choice to get them there. Those who earned more than $100,000 and had at least bachelor’s degrees were far more likely (74%) to recommend higher education than those who did not possess a college degree or earned less than $50,000 (52%). Democrats (70%) also said a college education was worth the cost, while Republicans (53%) and Independents (52%) were a bit more skeptical about its value. Interestingly, the youngest generation of respondents, Gen Z (62%), favored getting a college education over Gen X (54%) and Baby Boomers (59%).

Democrats also were more likely to favor civics (41%) and social justice (45%) as part of higher education learning than Republicans, at 30% and 19%, respectively.

“This report shows that majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents all believe that a college degree is still worth it,” said Kevin Miller, BPC associate director for higher education. “But a substantial minority of Americans harbors doubts about the value of college. We must address concerns about access and affordability in higher education so that more Americans can get the college credentials that employers believe are essential.”