Americans Split on Value of a College Degree

A Pew study indicates many are skeptical, but college graduates remain confident in their choices.

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Americans are increasingly dubious about the value of a college education, according to a Pew Research Center report released today. However, a vast majority of those with college degrees remain confident that the education has been essential to their financial and professional successes. 

"You have a split verdict from the public on these questions," says Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and the director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project. "There is real concern—growing concern—about affordability and value measured against cost, but a very solid registration of satisfaction [among college graduates] that, 'This was a good thing I did in my life, and there's a real payoff to it.'" 

In the report, 57 percent of the 2,142 Americans surveyed claimed that the nation's higher education system does not offer adequate value in return for increasingly high costs, and 75 percent feel it is unaffordable for the average citizen. Average tuition costs at private universities, for instance, have nearly tripled in the last 30 years—jumping, on average, from just under $10,000 a year to nearly $30,000 annually, according to the College Board. Tuition growth has been more than four times the rate of general inflation during the past 25 years, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. 

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With families taxed by these rising costs, an increasing number of students and parents are making college decisions with finances at the forefront of their minds. In a separate survey released in March, 92 percent of 21,339 high school seniors were adamant that the value of their degree—or the return on their investment—was an important factor when making a college decision, education research firm Maguire Associates found. "The financial investment that families are making in a college education has increased significantly, and so it is not surprising that students and families are placing more emphasis on the return on that investment," says Tara Scholder, senior vice president of Maguire Associates. 

Not only are Americans worried about shouldering the burden of college costs, but many have decided to avoid them altogether. Among the 18-to-34-year-olds surveyed by Pew who were not in college and didn't have a bachelor's degree, 48 percent claimed they didn't attend college because it was prohibitively expensive. 

Despite the monetary concerns, nearly all of the 757 four-year college graduates Pew surveyed were confident that their investment in higher education proved beneficial. Of the college graduates surveyed, 86 percent claimed that it has been a good investment. Only 6 percent maintained it wasn't a good investment, and 8 percent were undecided or didn't respond. Data support the college graduates' collective intuition, as the recent U.S. Census found that the median college graduate makes $19,550 more annually than the median high school graduate. 

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And though most Americans surveyed by Pew are wary of the value of a college degree, an overwhelming majority of parents still want their children to go to college. Of the parents Pew surveyed, 94 percent expect their child to go to college, inferring that the increased skepticism hasn't significantly influenced decision making, Pew's Taylor says. "Despite the concern about rising costs, college remains a near universal aspiration in this country." 

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