EEUU: Estimaciones del valor de la educación superior, ¿vale la pena?
Junio 7, 2024

Pew Research: Is college worth it? Yes, with caveats

Almost one third of Americans do not believe that a college education is worth the cost and 47% believe it is worth it only if they don’t have to take out loans, says a new study by the Pew Research Center. These findings are in line with a trend dating back to at least 2017 when only 49% of Americans reported believing that a college education was worth the cost.

Last year, a Wall Street Journal-National Opinion Research Centre (University of Chicago) poll found that 56% of respondents believed a BA degree was worth the cost, while a Gallup poll reported that the percentage of Americans who had only “some” or “little” faith in higher education had risen to 62% from 47% five years earlier.

Pew’s study, “Is College Worth it?” (May 2024), found that 40% of Americans say a college degree is “not too” or “not at all” important in order to get a well-paying job. One third of the 5,203 respondents say that a college degree is “somewhat important” in getting a well-paying job. Only 25% of respondents said it was “extremely-very important”.

Mark Salisbury, co-founder and CEO of TutionFit, a company that provides real college pricing information so that students can make informed decisions about which college they can afford, said: “The Pew findings precisely capture the intersection of three realities in America.

“First, additional education and credentials tend to result in higher income and broader opportunities. Second, family income for most Americans has stagnated while the cost of almost everything . . . from a hamburger to a college education . . . has increased dramatically.

“And third, the range of possible prices one could pay for a college education has widened substantially while finding out the actual price for an individual student has become even more difficult,” Salisbury continued.

“So, the public knows that they need additional education after high school more than ever, they know that the average cost of obtaining that education increasingly requires an uncomfortable financial stretch, and they are more and more frustrated by a shopping experience that feels like a macabre game show reveal of ‘What’s behind door number #3’.”

Rising tuition fees drive negative views

As the study notes, these declines are partially attributable to the steep rise in the cost of college tuition over the past two decades and the student debt crisis.

According to a 2023 US News and World Report article cited by Pew, adjusted for inflation, tuition at private universities has increased 40% over the past two decades to almost $47,000 per year while at public universities it has increased by 38% per year for in-state students and 56% for out-of-state students, to $12,000 and $28,000 respectively.

An equally important reason in the politically polarised United States that is not cited in this Pew survey but was in its 2019 study, “The Growing Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education”, is the so-called ‘direction’ of education.

By a large margin, 79% of Republicans, who are more conservative, believe that liberal professors bring their political views into the classroom. By contrast, only 17% of Democrats had this concern.

This belief underlies the culture war that, for example, governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Gregg Abbott of Texas and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, have waged against critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programmes. As discussed in these pages, De Santis’ ‘war on woke’ included the replacement of the board of New College, Florida’s only publicly-owned liberal arts college with a conservative one who remade the renowned politically liberal college along conservative lines.

Writing in Newsweek in November 2022, Professor Nicolas Creel, who teaches business law at George College and State University (Milledgeville, Georgia), said that the Republicans were winning on all fronts – “attacking its [higher education’s] finances, seeking to regulate the content of professors’ speech, and seeking to end the institution of tenure”.

Little wonder, as PEW’s 2023 study showed, Republican’s confidence in higher education declined by 37 percentage points from 56% to 19% between 2015 and 2023. Over that same period, Democrats’ confidence also declined, from 68% to 59%.

The college education premium

Although, as Pew notes, over the past few years both men and women without college degrees have seen their work force participation numbers grow and their incomes have also risen, chart after chart shows the premium the American economy awards to the nation’s 17 million workers between the ages of 25 and 34 who have a college education as opposed to the 19 million workers in the same cohort who have only high school or some college

The labour force participation rate for men with BAs is 94% compared to 87% for men with only high school. Eighty seven percent of women with BAs are in the labour force while only 69% of women with only high school are; this percentage is 4% lower than it was in 2000.

Over the last decade, for example, men workers with only high school saw their wages rise from $39,000 to $45,000, while men with BAs saw theirs rise from $67,500 to $75,000. The figures for women are $31,000 to $36,000 and $55,000 to $65,000, respectively.

The college education premium is even more striking when looking at household income.

Households in which the man graduated college earn just under $145,000 per year – almost double the amount ($75,000) earned by households in which the man had only graduated high school. Even “some college” amounted to an almost $20,000 per year premium, as those with “some college” earned $92,000.

The Pew study does not suggest a reason why households in which the man graduated college earn more. However, there is a strong body of evidence to show that assortative mating – the marriage of educational and, hence, near economic equals – is one of the reasons for the economic disparity between college educated families and those without college education.

The rate of poverty among male college graduates, which was near 8% in 2010, fell by two percentage points and is half that of men with only high school. Women college graduates have a similar rate of poverty while the rate of poverty of those with only high school is more than four times greater: 21%. At $120,000, the typical net worth of young adults with college degrees is four times higher than that of young adults with only high school.

In addition to showing how Republicans and Democrats view the importance of higher education, Pew has reported on how college graduates, those with some college and those with only high school, view the importance of college.

The importance of college

Despite the evidence to the contrary, only 22% of those with only a high school diploma view college education as extremely or very important to getting a well-paying job, although 30% averred that it was somewhat important. Yet fully 47% of these Americans answered that a college degree was not too or not at all important to getting a good paying job.

By contrast, 30% of those with BAs said a college education was important to getting a well-paying job and 40% said it was somewhat important. Fifty-five percent of those with some college said that college was extremely-very-somewhat important in order to get a well-paying job.

Americans with postgraduate degrees were even more bullish on the importance of higher education than those with BAs. “Some 35% of postgraduates say it’s extremely or very important to have a four-year college degree in order to get a well-paying job,” the report says.

Pew broke the question of whether, as compared to twenty years ago, is it more important to have a college degree, by age.

Among 18 to 29 year-olds, 44% think it is more important while 40% say it is less important than a generation ago. The 30 to 49 year-olds said it was less important by a margin of 24 percentage points: 53% to 29%. The percentages for respondents 50 years and older are similar to the 30 to 49 year-old age group.

No matter how much education respondents had, a large majority felt that their education prepared them for a well-paying job. One quarter of those with only a high school education answered extremely or very to this question and 31% answered somewhat; the figures for those with some college were similar.

By contrast, 58% of those with a BA or more answered that their education was extremely or very useful in preparing them for a well-paying job. Another quarter answered that their university education contributed to them having a well-paying job.

A word of caution

Salisbury cautioned, however, that the responses of those with BAs and advanced degrees should be taken with a grain of salt.

“The folks who are responding to this survey 20 years after they got their college degree tend to be looking through rose-coloured glasses. Even the most harrowing experiences aren’t so bad for those who survived them,” he wrote in an email to University World News.

The final question Pew reported on concerned Americans’ perception of the worth of going into debt to finance higher education, which, as University World News has covered in stories about President Joe Biden’s efforts to deal with the almost $2 trillion outstanding debt held by tens of millions of Americans who borrowed to go to college and university, is a major debate in the country.

According to the College Board, a not-for-profit organisation that has more than 6,000 schools, colleges and universities as members, the average debt by students who borrowed to attend college is $29,400.

For those who attended private not-for-profit colleges, a category that includes such famous institutions as Oberlin College, University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, the average debt is $33,600.

Ten percent of debtors owe at least $80,000. The median student debt for professional degrees, for example, lawyers and doctors, is $168,277. On average, Black Americans owe $58,400 as compared to $43,300 for White Americans.

Between 46% and 49% of Americans with only a high school education, some college or a BA or more, say that college is worth it – but without taking on debt. About half of those with only a high school degree and those with a degree judged it worth taking on debt to attend college.

That only 19% of those with some college agreed it was worth taking on debt to attend college may reflect the fact that many of these respondents took on debt but because they did not attain their degree, they are stranded in lower paying jobs that make repaying the debt extremely difficult.

Twenty three percent, 19% and 25%, respectively answered that it was worth taking out loans to get a higher education. The largest group saying college is not worth it with or without loans is the 50+ year old cohort, of whom 30% say college is not worth it. For 30 to 49 year-olds the percentage is 32% and 22% of 18 to 29 year-olds say college is not worth it.

Educational attainment does not materially affect the judgement on whether it is worth going into debt to attend college. Forty six percent of those with only high school say it is not, while 48% and 49% of those with some college or a BA or more answered that it is not worth borrowing to go to college.

Seventeen percent of both those with only high school and those with some college say it is worth going into debt to attend higher education while double that percent who have at least a BA say it is worth borrowing for college. Thirty six percent of those with only a high school education and 34% with some college say that college is not worth it, while only 18% of degree holders answered this.

When parsed by party affiliation, Pew found that 41% of Republicans said going into debt for college was not worth it and, surprisingly, 54% of Democrats (who otherwise are more supportive of higher education) answered the same way.

Almost 20% of Republicans said it was worth taking out loans while just over a quarter of Democrats answered this way. Almost 40% of Republicans said college – with or without loans – was not worth it, while only 30% of Democrats told Pew they believed this.


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