Only half of Americans think the economic benefits of a college education outweigh the costs, according to a USA Today/Public Agenda poll released Monday.
The new report, based on a survey of 1,662 American adults, found young people without degrees are particularly skeptical of the economic upside of attending college.
That skepticism appears to be driven by the rising cost of higher education rather than a perceived decline in the value of a degree — 86% of respondents agreed that a college education can help working adults advance their careers, and about 70% said a college education helps people become better informed.
So is college still worth the price of admission? NewsNation asked Kevin Miller, the associate director of education at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“In general, the research shows that going to college pays off,” Miller said.
He pointed out that a student’s choice of major and the institution they attend can impact the extent to which that’s true.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for a worker with a bachelor’s degree is $1,334, compared to $809 for those with only a high school diploma. And there is evidence that the gap is growing.
Despite the earnings gap, wages have not kept pace with rising tuition costs, and that’s led many to reconsider advancing their education.
Since 1980, the average price tag for undergraduate education has increased nearly 170%, while earnings for workers ages 22-27 have only gone up 19%, according to a 2021 report from Georgetown University.
Today, the average student loan debt for recent college graduates is about $30,000.
“I think the student debt crisis is certainly decreasing morale and is giving people a lot of concern, which is fair,” Miller said.
Research suggests outcomes vary widely depending on the type of school students attend.
In a report published earlier this year, Miller found the vast majority of public and private nonprofit institutions provide a positive return on investment for their students but a third category, private for-profit institutions, were far less likely to do so.
College graduates also face lower unemployment rates on average, BLS data shows.
Monday’s survey results suggest a broader decline in college attendance could be set to continue.
Undergraduate enrollment is down nearly 1.4 million students since the start of the pandemic, according to National Student Clearinghouse data. It remains to be seen whether those numbers will rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
As recently as 2013, 70% of Americans said a college education was “very important” but by 2019 the proportion who said the same was just 51%, according to Gallup polling.