Pandemic Shakes Students’ Views on Value of Higher Education, Survey Finds

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Students are increasingly feeling like higher education is not worth the cost, according to a new survey from public policy-focused think tanks Third Way and New America.

Nearly two-thirds of the college students surveyed held the view that higher education is not worth the cost anymore, up from 49% of respondents who held that view in a similar poll conducted last August.

The coronavirus pandemic has appeared to greatly impact those views, as job prospects for some graduates were sparse and the transition to remote learning left many questioning the costs of their education. 

The survey of more than 1,000 current college students and 200 high school seniors, conducted between April 29 and May 13, 2021, found 75% of currently enrolled college students agreed that their college degree will be worth the same as one earned before the pandemic, a slight increase from a December 2020 iteration of the survey. Additionally, two-thirds of students said that their individual institution delivers a good return on investment, a figure that remained unchanged from the last survey.

However, students reported feeling concerned that the online education they received amid the pandemic degrades the value of their degree, with 56% saying their degree is less valuable because it was online, and 53% agreeing with the statement that online higher education offerings are not as good of quality.

The diminishing views of the value of a higher education is coupled with growing concern over the state of the economy, according to the survey.

While an overwhelming number believe the worst of the pandemic is behind the country, only 26% believe the economy is getting better, while 33% think it’s getting worse.

As for individual economic worries over the next few months, 47% reported feeling uneasy. Relatedly, 67% reported they are worried about their ability to pay tuition bills, and 62% said they were worried about their ability to pay non-educational bills.

Notably, 79% of students said they are still concerned about their job prospects once they graduate.

Following declines in enrollment almost across every sector of higher education, institutions — most of which are set to be open for in-person instruction come fall — are hoping for a rebound with students returning this fall.

Among current college students, 85% said they’re likely to re-enroll in their current college for the coming fall semester. Among high school seniors, 60% said the pandemic had made no difference in their plans to enroll in college, while 18% said the pandemic made them less likely to enroll.

“While it might be too soon to say enrollment will go back up this coming fall semester, the data paints a positive picture for first-time enrollment at colleges and universities,” the survey noted.

As for President Joe Biden and his administration’s ambitious higher education agenda, 47% of respondents said it should prioritize policies that make higher education more affordable, and 32% want the administration to prioritize policies that alleviate the student loan repayment burden for borrowers.

“As many colleges and universities are planning for a return to a new normal this fall, students will want more support from their colleges, not only in the form of financial aid, but also advising and counselling to help them graduate on time,” the survey concluded. “Students want the Biden administration and Congress to act too — they would like to see the President and Congress prioritize affordability and accountability policies to ensure that a college degree maintains its value in a changing economy.”


Publication Date: 7/7/2021

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