Is College Really Worth It? Insights from the Gallup-Purdue Index

Business.com / Education / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Recent graduates facing student debt have expressed their opinions on the true worth of their college degree.

You’ve heard it a million times: college is expensive.

But you can’t get a good job without a degree, right? So no matter how high the cost, it’s worth it…right? It turns out recent graduates aren’t so sure.

According to Bankrate.com, the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities is rising as state budgets tighten and appropriations drop.

At the same time, demand for a degree is also going up as workers see the value of having a degree in an often tough job market.

In fact, tuition at public universities has quadrupled in the last 35 years, according to The New York Times.

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The best way to find out if college is really worth is to ask the graduates themselves. The second national 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index, a national study of more than 60,000 college graduates over two years in partnership with Purdue University and Lumina Foundation,  identified notable differences in graduates of public, private and for-profit colleges when asked if their degree was worth the cost. The survey raised good questions about the value of a college degree.

The survey was launched in 2014 as a response to the call for increased accountability in higher education and will be conducted every year through 2018.

More Student Loan Debt Than Ever Before

Brandon Busteed, Executive Director, Education and Workforce Development at Gallup's Global Headquarters in Washington, D.C, wrote in an email to Business.com that it’s worrisome to look at the most recent graduates in the dataset, simply because they have higher amounts of student loan debt than previous generations of graduates – and they are much less likely to strongly agree their education was worth the cost.

“If costs and student loan debts continue to increase, it’s a fair assumption that we could see continued drops in the percent of recent graduates who strongly agree their education was worth the cost,” Busteed added.

This year’s GPI showed that 63 percent of alumni who graduated from 2006-2015 used student loans to help finance their education. Among those who borrowed, the median loan was $30,000. Only half of all alumni “strongly agreed” their university education was worth the cost. This figure varies slightly between alumni of public universities and alumni of private nonprofit universities, but it dropped to 26 percent among graduates of private for-profit universities.

Relationships and Experiences Key

“Making college worth it is less about the prestige and brand name of the college or university you attend and much more about the relationships and experiences you have in college – and to a certain degree how much debt you take on in the process,” noted Busteed. “More prestigious and expensive colleges don’t have a lock on quality and value.”

Nearly half of recent graduates who incurred any amount of student loan debt reported postponing further training or postgraduate education because of those loans. A third or more have delayed purchasing a house or a car because of debt, and nearly one in five have put off starting their own business. Each of these figures rises significantly among those with a debt burden of $25,001 or higher.

Clear Relationship Between Debt Load and Perceived Value

Recent graduates with a debt burden of $25,001 or more are almost twice as likely to strongly agree that their education was worth the cost if they recall supportive relationships with professors and mentors.

“Mentoring relationships, professors that care about you as a person, taking courses with long-term projects, seeking internship and job experiences that apply what you are learning, interacting with others from different backgrounds – all are crucial, high-quality marks to aim for in college. Hitting those marks with as little debt as possible should be the goal,” Tozer wrote.

A student’s major may have an impact on his or her perception of the value of college as well. “We have not looked closely yet at breaks by major on perceived college value,” explained Tozer, “However, in the year one study, we did see differences in the support a student received based on their major. Some majors also lead to higher salaries. And both higher quality experiences and higher income are linked to graduates being more likely to agree their education was the worth the cost.”

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Experiential Learning Matters

If recent graduates strongly agree that they had any of three experiential learning opportunities — an internship related to their studies, active involvement in extracurricular activities or a project that took a semester or more to complete — their likelihood to strongly agree that their education was worth the cost increases 1.5 times.

This held true even when controlling for personality characteristics and other variables including student loan debt and employment status.

Graduates who strongly agreed that they had professors who cared about them had at least one professor who made them excited about learning and had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams were twice as likely to be emotionally engaged at work.

“It is important to remember that low levels of student debt are not necessarily a major driver of your perception that your education was or was not worth the cost—it is moderate and high levels of student debt that tend to be associated with poorer evaluations of degree value,” summarized Tozer. “If higher education institutions don’t deliver on high-quality experiences, the perceptions of its worth will suffer.  Improving quality and reducing cost is absolutely crucial.”

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