Pew Research Center Asks Americans, Is College Worth It?

Is college worth it? I take that question pretty seriously -- not just as an education journalist, not just because it's suddenly quite a buzzworthy question to be asking.

I take it seriously as a student loan debtor. I cringe at what I owe the government and Sallie Mae, and I figure I'll be in forbearance or making minimum monthly payments 'til I die. But hey I have a Bachelors, a Masters, three chapters of a dissertation, a strong liberal arts background, and a vast income potential... bwahahahahaha!

I take it seriously as a single mom. Add to my student loan debt, the cost of my son's education. He graduates from high school in 24 days, and everyone is asking, "what's next?" "College" is assumed to be the answer, so the question "what's next?" is really just code for "what school?"

But we're passionately ambivalent about higher ed here. I mean, I love school. But my son has never really has, and so I've never pushed him down a particular academic path. Despite a directionlessness that I think iss really quite alright for a 17 year old, he's decided he's headed to the local community college in the fall.

He knows that he needs to go to college. He knows it's necessary career-wise. But he says he's starting to feel it intellectually and socially as well. College is worth it. Right?

Worth It? Mixed Signals from Pew Research Center Survey

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Pew Research Center has just released the results of an incredibly interesting couple of surveys about American's opinions on college and its worth -- one survey of the general public and one, done in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education, of college presidents.

The surveys contain a number of contradictory opinions about higher ed that reflect that same sort of ambivalence my son and I have: this idea that college is too expensive and not a good value as the same time as it's a good investment if not a necessary expenditure.

According to the survey, 57% of Americans believe that college fails to provide students with a good value for the money they and their families spend, and 75% say that college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. Despite these doubts about colleges value and affordability, 86% of college grads say that college was a good investment for them personally.

If "good investment" means earning potential, then college grads and non-college grads have a good sense of the difference a college degree makes. Their estimates match what is actually the median gap in earnings between a high school and college graduate -- about $20,000.

College Costs

Even if earning potential is greater, college students are leaving school with a substantial debt burden. 60% of college students relies on student loans to fund their education in 2008, up from 52% in 1996. When you look at for-profit schools, that rate's even higher: 95% take out loans to pay for school.

About half of college grads say that their student loan debt makes it hard to pay other bills and 25% say the debt has had an impact on their career choices.

Even though the assumption is that everyone will attend college, most young adults don't attend four-year schools. The barrier, finds the survey, is financial. Among those who aren't in school and don't have a bachelor's, two-thirds say the major reason for not staying in school is the need to support a family.

The survey also found a split opinion on the mission of higher ed. Just under half of those surveyed (47%) said the major purpose of a college education is to teach work-related skills. 39% said that its purpose was to help a student grow personally and intellectually. The rest say those missions are equally important. College grads tend to stress the intellectual growth while those who don't have their degrees emphasize career prep.

The survey of the American public's opinions on college make an interesting contrast with the opinions of college presidents, who point the finger at high schools for failing to adequately prepare incoming students, but who also think students today study less than their predecessors. Two-thirds of college presidents believe that students and families should pay for their education -- not the government or private endowments -- but only 48% of the public feels the same way.


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