Despite soaring tuition and student loan debt piling up, 68 percent of Americans feel college is still worth attending. Yet, when asked if attending college is necessary to get ahead in life, 55 percent of Americans believe it is not, with 36 percent feeling that way strongly, according to a new WGBH News/Abt Associates poll.
The survey of 1,002 adults, which was conducted Aug. 21-25, finds generational gaps in how Americans view a college education. Only four in 10 under 40, a demographic that includes college age and recent grads, believe college is worth attending, with only about one-third feeling that way strongly. By comparison, seven in 10 Americans over 40 feel college is worth attending, and a majority of those over 50 feel that way strongly.
These findings reflect the high cost of college and increasing student debt that younger Americans face. Over the last decade, the average cost of tuition has more than doubled for private, public and two-year institutions. To afford college, Americans are taking out more loans and owe more than $1 trillion in student debt.
Is college necessary to get ahead? Those under 40 overwhelmingly — 62 percent of them — say no. More specifically, 45 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds feel that way strongly.
These same trends hold among college graduates. Nearly three-quarters of college grads feel college is worth attending, but 52 percent feel it is not necessary to get ahead in life. More than eight in 10 of those with a post-graduate degree feel college is worth attending, but fully 56 percent believe it is unnecessary to get ahead. These patterns indicate a college degree still has value but may not be seen as the only way to achieve success in life.
The people who answered the telephone survey don’t have a clear culprit on who to blame for the rising costs of attending college. Seventy-nine percent say paying for new residential and athletic facilities is a contributing factor, with the same number calling out the costs of paying faculty and staff. Other reasons include hiring more administrators (73 percent), health care for faculty and staff (71 percent), and federal student aid covering the cost increases (67 percent).
Overall, however, Americans a have positive feeling about colleges and universities, as two-thirds have a favorable impression of higher education in the United States. When asked about their impact on society, 77 percent of Americans believe colleges have a positive impact. That number grows to 81 percent when asked about their impact on the surrounding local community.
Public colleges are perceived more favorably than private colleges. Overall, favorability increases with education level, as 80 percent of college grads rate colleges in general favorable, while only 61 percent of non-grads say the same.
Moreover, most Americans — a full 59 percent — feel college graduates are not elitists, including majorities of both college grads (79 percent) and non-grads (50 percent). Despite these relatively positive views, 54 percent feel graduates of Ivy League colleges are elitist. This is largely driven by the impression of non-college grads, 57 percent of whom feel Ivy League graduates are elitist.
Additionally, we see a generational gap, whereby more younger Americans age 18-29 (61 percent) feel Ivy League grads are elitist than any other age demographic. More low-income Americans (those who earn less than $50,000 annually) feel college grads in general are elitist than those earning over $100,000 annually (61 percent versus 48 percent, respectively).
Findings of the entire sample of 1,002 adults have a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
David Ciemnecki is a senior analyst at Abt Associates. For more on the poll's methodology, click here.
Our higher education reports are a collaboration with The Forum for the Future of Higher Education and made possible with support from Lumina Foundation and the Davis Educational Foundation.