Findings from a spring 2023 survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago paint a daunting portrait of changing American values in a sharply divided nation. Compared with prior results, patriotism, religious faith, having children, community involvement, hard work, and tolerance for others have all dropped dramatically in importance since the Journal first asked about the topics in a 1998 survey. And while young Americans placed the least emphasis on these priorities, respondents from all age groups attached less importance to each of these values than in previous polls over the past two and a half decades.
In the responses from the 1,019 adults surveyed, higher education, long identified as a cornerstone of the American dream, didn’t fare any better. When asked whether a four-year college degree is “worth the cost because people have a better chance to get a good job and earn more income over a lifetime” or whether it is “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off,” 56 percent of respondents identified the latter claim as most closely representing their point of view. There is no denying the profound impact of mounting student debt. Loan burdens due to skyrocketing tuition and class inequities have correlated to fewer young adults buying homes, starting small businesses, beginning families, and saving for retirement. These kinds of economic challenges are even more daunting for those among the nearly 40 percent of the 43.8 million borrowers in America who have accrued student debt without earning a college degree.
Though these numbers are troubling in and of themselves, two other sets of data from the recent Journal-NORC survey should raise additional alarms. The first details the sharp increase in skepticism regarding higher education’s value among those who have already earned a college degree. Within this category, 42 percent maintain that their college education wasn’t worth it, up 10 percentage points from surveys in 2017 and 2013. Overall, the most dramatic declines in confidence were expressed by women, whose perceptions that college is worth the cost fell from 54 percent to 44 percent, and by older Americans, with those indicating confidence dropping from 56 percent to 44 percent. The second area of concern is that a lack of confidence in higher education is strongest for those aged eighteen to thirty-four, the predominant target group for colleges and universities.
The consequences of this loss in confidence have been dire, with American higher education experiencing its steepest enrollment decline on record. From 2019 to 2022, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The biggest drops have been at community colleges, which have experienced a 40 percent decline over the past ten years. In part, these numbers attest to a narrowing focus on immediate employability and reflect America’s growing obsession with making money—the only value cited in the Journal-NORC poll that grew in importance. Despite well-documented research establishing the greater income over a lifetime that comes with a college degree, the reality is that, right now, many Americans are focused on paying their bills. Under the circumstances, rising competition from business and industry in the form of microcredentials as alternative pathways to careers, on-the-job training opportunities, and an increase in corporations and state governments eliminating college degrees as a prerequisite for certain kinds of employment have led many in the lowest socioeconomic rungs to forgo a college education.
Against this backdrop, the need for campuses to ensure equitable access, affordability, and career preparation is more critical than ever. Yet, the accumulating disenchantment with American higher education signals the need to go further. We know that 85 percent of first-year students entering four-year colleges and universities say that their primary reason for attending college is to get a job. Nevertheless, as a 2018 Bates College–Gallup survey revealed, students are seeking more than just gainful employment. Increasingly, they want to find careers that align with their sense of purpose. Nationally, 95 percent of four-year college graduates consider a sense of purpose at least moderately important to their work, and 80 percent indicate that it is very important or extremely important. A sense of purpose, defined as an active and enduring commitment to achieving something meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self, has been associated with motivation and energy, resilience under pressure, a sense of identity and direction, academic and vocational achievement, and physical health and well-being through one’s lifespan. Unfortunately, while the Bates study confirmed that graduates with a high sense of purpose in their work were almost ten times more likely to express overall well-being, just 40 percent reported having found a meaningful career, and a mere 34 percent said they were deeply interested in their work. If higher education leaders are to redress this trend, campuses must enhance their focus on activating a sense of purpose among all students. Indeed, I suspect that the expanding number of those with college degrees expressing doubts about higher education’s value have been unable to connect what they learned as undergraduates to their work lives or to issues that matter to them and the broader society.
Though increasingly marginalized from the mainstream curriculum, fostering lives of meaning and purpose is at the very foundation of a liberal education, designed to nurture the skills and dispositions that lead to human flourishing for the sake of both the learner and the community. By embracing and reaffirming liberal education’s mission, perhaps colleges and universities can reactivate our own sense of purpose and begin to restore public trust in the enduring and transformative power of American higher education—not merely as a means for getting a job but as a catalyst for living a good life.
Illustration by Paul Spella