Is College Worth It? Survey Finds Only 36% of Americans Have Confidence in Higher Education – WABE

Is College Worth It? Survey Finds Only 36% of Americans Have Confidence in Higher Education – WABE

Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical about the value and cost of a college education. A new poll finds that most say they believe the U.S. higher education system is headed in the “wrong direction.”

Overall, just 36% of adults say they have “very much” or “extremely” confidence in higher education, according to the report released Monday by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation. That confidence level has steadily declined from 57% in 2015.

Some of these sentiments are reflected in declining enrollments, as colleges grapple with the fallout from the student loan crisis, worry about high tuition costs and engage in political debates over the way they teach about race and other topics.

The dimming view of whether college is worth the time and money holds true across all demographics, including gender, age and political affiliation. Among Republicans, the share of respondents with high confidence in higher education has fallen 36 percentage points over the past decade, far more than it has fallen among Democrats or independents.

“It’s so expensive, and I don’t think colleges teach people what they need to get a job,” said Randy Hill, 59, a registered Republican in Connecticut and a driver for a car company. His cousin plans to pursue a welding degree after graduating from high school. “You graduate, you’re up to your eyeballs in debt, you can’t get a job, and then you can’t pay it off. What’s the point?”

The overall finding of the June 2024 survey — that 36% of adults have strong confidence in higher education — is unchanged from the year before. But what worries researchers is the shift in opinion at the bottom, with fewer Americans saying they have “some” confidence and more reporting “very little” and “none.” This year’s findings show that nearly as many people have little or no confidence, 32%, as those with a lot of confidence.

Experts say a smaller number of college graduates could exacerbate labor shortages in industries such as health care and information technology. For those who don’t go to college, that often means lower lifetime earnings — 75 percent lower than those who earn a bachelor’s degree, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And during an economic downturn, those without degrees are more likely to lose their jobs.

“It’s sad to see that trust hasn’t grown at all,” said Courtney Brown, vice president of Lumina, an education nonprofit focused on increasing the number of students seeking college after high school. “What I find shocking is that the number of people with little to no trust is actually increasing.”

This year, new, detailed questions have been added to the survey to gain insight into the reasons why trust is declining.

Nearly a third of respondents say college is “too expensive,” while 24% believe students are not being properly educated or are not learning what they need to be successful.

The survey did not specifically address this year’s protests against the war in Gaza that have divided many college campuses, but political views weighed heavily on the findings. Respondents expressed concerns about indoctrination, political bias and that universities are too liberal these days. Of those who lack confidence, 41% cited political agendas as a reason.

Some findings:

More than two-thirds, or 67%, of respondents say the university is going in the ‘wrong direction’, compared to only 31% who think it is going in the right direction.

According to Gallup, people generally think of four-year institutions when they feel confident about higher education. But the survey found that more people feel confident about two-year institutions. Forty-nine percent of adults say they have “a great deal” or “extremely” confidence in two-year programs, compared to 33% of Americans who feel that way about four-year colleges.

Kristen Freeman, a California university student, understands why.

“It’s about saving money. That’s why I went with a two-year program. You get more bang for your buck,” said Freeman, 22, a sociology major at Diablo Valley Community College with plans to transfer to San Jose State University for her final two years of college.

Freeman understands the concerns about indoctrination and whether college is preparing students for life and work, but he also believes the only way to change systemic problems is from within. “I’m learning about the world around me and developing useful critical thinking skills,” Freeman says. “I think higher education can give students the spark to want to change the system.”