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Is College Worth It?

Perspectives from employers and the public

September 1, 2021

With college students in the United States facing rising tuition costs, increasing debt burdens, and uncertain employment prospects, many Americans are asking, “Is college worth it?”

A new research brief, published by AAC&U in partnership with the Bipartisan Policy Center, combines findings from two recent surveys—one featuring responses from 496 executives and hiring managers, and another with responses from 2,200 American adults—to provide compelling insights into how different groups of Americans view college education and career success.

Is college worth the time and money? Are students learning what matters most for workforce preparation? The answers to those questions, the surveys find, depend on whom you ask.

Employers Are More Likely than the Public to See Value in a College Degree

  • A majority (60 percent) of Americans say they still believe that a college degree is worth the time and money involved.
  • But if those Americans happen to be employers, nearly nine in ten (87 percent) believe that a college degree is “definitely” or “probably” worth the investment.

Views about the Value of College Vary by Income Level, Educational Attainment, and Political Affiliation

  • Nearly three-quarters of respondents with a bachelor’s degree (73 percent) or an annual income greater than $100K (74 percent) believe investments in college education are worthwhile, compared with just 51 percent of respondents who do not hold a college degree and 52 percent with an annual income below $50K.
  • The survey also found that Democrats (70 percent) are much more likely than Republicans (53 percent) and Independents (52 percent) to believe that college is worth the investment (see fig. 1).

Figure 1.

F&F1 Sept 2021.JPG

Younger Americans Are More Likely to See Value in a College Degree

  • Public trust in social institutions, such as education and government, has been declining for decades. Younger generations of Americans, who weathered the economic collapse of 2008 and have come of age in a highly polarized political climate, often demonstrate even greater distrust than other age groups.
  • Nevertheless, Gen Z (61 percent) and millennials (63 percent) are more likely to believe college is “definitely” or “probably” worth the time and money than Gen X (54 percent) and baby boomers (59 percent).

Employers and the Public Overwhelmingly Favor a Well-Rounded Education

  • When asked what skills are important for success in today’s workforce, employers and the broader public largely agree that critical thinking, problem solving, and effective communication are top priorities.
  • The highest percentages of American adults identify critical thinking and problem solving (68 percent) and effective communication skills (64 percent), such as writing and speaking, as “very important for workforce success” (see fig. 2).
  • Employers similarly rank critical thinking (60 percent), problem solving (54 percent), and written communication (54 percent) as among the most important skills that college graduates should be able to demonstrate.
  • But perceptions of the skills needed for workforce success also vary by political affiliation and age. For example, Democrats (72 percent) are more likely than Republicans (63 percent) to rank critical thinking as “very important for workforce success.”
  • Baby boomers, on average, are 10 percentage points more likely than Gen Z respondents to believe that critical thinking and problem-solving, communication, and aptitudes and dispositions (including empathy and work ethic) are important for workforce success.

Figure 2.

f&F2 Sept 2021.JPG

Younger Adults and Employers See More Value in Promoting Racial Equity, Community-Based Learning, and Global Learning

  • However, while two in five American adults responding to the survey indicate strong support for institutions of higher education working to promote racial equity, more Gen Z respondents (52 percent) than baby boomers (37 percent) agree.
  • Similarly, employers under forty are significantly more likely to see community-based and global learning experiences as meaningful preparation for the workplace when compared with older employers.