Is College Worth It? That Depends on a Lot of Things, Gallup Says

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

With both the cost of tuition and the average amount of student loan debt continuing to increase, students and families are constantly questioning whether it’s worth the financial investment to go to college.

But the overwhelming answer from a Gallup survey released this week is no more satisfying than any previous research. Overall, it depends.

In the second edition of the Gallup-Purdue Index, researchers found that nationally, 50 percent of college graduates surveyed strongly agreed that college was worth the investment. But the graduates’ answers varied depending on the type of institution they attended, when they graduated, and how much undergraduate debt they accumulated.

At public universities, for example, 52 percent of alumni said they strongly agreed college was worth it. That number dropped to 47 percent at private nonprofit universities, and to 26 percent at for-profit universities.

Recent graduates – those who graduated between 2006 and 2015 – were also significantly less likely (38 percent) than college graduates overall to say they thought college was worth the cost. Graduates with more undergraduate student loan debt were also less likely to say college was worth it.

The survey did not find noticeable differences between graduates of research universities, or across racial and ethnic groups, or first-generation students.

The report also highlighted the burden having high student loan debt can have on college graduates. Previous Gallup research found accumulating more than $25,000 in debt can affect more than just the borrower’s financial well-being – it can also take a toll on his or her health.

The new survey found that more than one-third (35 percent) of recent college graduates said they took out more than $25,000 in student loans. The number was even higher among recent African-American graduates (50 percent), and first-generation college students (42 percent).

Among recent alumni, as student loan debt increased, the likelihood graduates said they strongly agreed that college was worth the cost decreased.

But colleges and universities can take steps to mitigate the effects having high student loan debt can have on a graduate’s future, the report said.

“Universities can influence both the amount of debt students must incur and to what extent their debt load prevents them from pursuing postgraduation goals,” the report said.

The results showed that graduates with high debt who strongly agreed with three items that indicated they had “supporting relationships with faculty members and mentors” while in school are significantly more likely to say college was worth it, and less likely to say student debt has prevented them from pursuing a higher education or starting a business after graduating.

The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index found the type of school graduates attended (public vs. private, small vs. large, very selective vs. less selective) had far less of an impact on their success after college than their experiences while in school. The 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index reaffirmed the importance of student experiences, the report said. The survey found that six key factors heavily influenced college graduates’ well-being and employee engagement, and also increased graduates’ likelihood of strongly agreeing that his or her college education was worth it. Graduates who said they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams were almost twice as likely to strongly agree that college was worth the investment, for example.

“Amid the heated debate about the costs and benefits of higher education in the U.S., and the finding that recent graduates are less likely to believe their education was worth the cost, the Gallup-Purdue Index brings some positive news: Higher education leaders and other stakeholders have opportunities to increase their university's value to undergraduates,” an article on the survey said. “They can do this by focusing on factors that help students make the most of their college years. Key among these factors are relationships with people who can help students stay fully engaged in their education and focused on the future it will help them achieve. In particular, faculty and other mentors can foster these student goals.”


Publication Date: 10/2/2015

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