Over the past decade, several concerns have caused people to question the value of a college education. A New America study in 2022 revealed there are “lots of well-paying, stable jobs that people can find with only a high school diploma or GED.” The same research shows postsecondary credentials provide more economic security. Despite differences in perceived economic security provided by different degrees, the study offers a bachelor’s degree as a foundation for economic security above all other forms of postsecondary educational experience. While many people question the value of the university experience, three out of four surveyed understand education beyond high school is a good investment. Likewise, and related, a significant majority of Americans think universities positively impact our nation’s and local communities’ future as both a private and public good. All forms of postsecondary education are thought to contribute to a strong American workforce, but not all degrees are of equal marketplace value. And lastly, people believe state and federal governments should make a stronger investment in postsecondary education.
There are complicating factors for assessing public opinion regarding the value of higher education. Inside Higher Ed reports a divide in perceptions regarding the effectiveness of universities. Slightly more than one-third of those queried understand the economic value of a college degree had increased over the last 20 years, while 38% say it decreased. These challenges do not exist in the United States alone. In England, concerns about the value of postsecondary education are also evident, according to “Public Attitudes to Higher Education.”
Many families and students have already decided whether or not to enroll in a postsecondary course of study and where and what to study for the upcoming fall semester. Some folks are still on the fence. Here are several critical considerations as families reflect on postsecondary options for students.
Debt: Be careful about over-indebtedness no matter what choices are made. Delayed life milestones, career choices, entrepreneurship, economic hardship, social burdens, and mental/emotional consequences are consequences of over-indebtedness and borrowing too much. The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) strives for transparency about college indebtedness. For years, I recommended that students who had to borrow to attend a four-year institutional education enroll at a community college first and not borrow there. I now know such advice may not be sound today. Community college price structures were developed to increase affordability and accessibility. However, a NEFE study found in the age group of people between 20 and 30, indebtedness for associate degrees has risen from under 15% to nearly 45%. The same study shows loan delinquency rates of college graduates are highest among those with associate degrees. I am not suggesting for a split second, an associate’s degree is a poor investment. Rather, the suggestion is each individual must make careful decisions about where, what and how to study. And be ever mindful of the long-term investment and costs of a degree program at a particular time and place.
Ideological Bias: People appreciate that different universities have different worldviews and ideologies. Public opinion suggests universities lean left on the political spectrum, causing students and families to question an institution’s willingness and ability to provide a balanced educational experience. A 2018 survey by the Gallup organization found most college students felt they could freely express their views in class. Still, a growing minority felt they could not, especially if their opinions differed from the instructor’s. Students and families should look carefully and study thoroughly any institution at which they might enroll and appreciate institutional directions from several perspectives. Buyer beware.
The relevance of a course of study: There is general agreement a college degree enhances job prospects and opens a wider range of career opportunities. I agree. However, employability can vary based on factors such as the field of study, the job market demand and the skills and experiences possessed by the graduates. Employment rates, career-specific programs, the transferability of skills learned, the opportunity for internships and hands-on experience while studying, coupled with rapidly changing job markets that evolve and respond to economic forces, can and should provide students insight. Common sense? Yes. However, many factors interfere with the decision-making environment that moves the core fundamentals for selecting a college: life aspirations, major and costs. Effective universities work with students and families to reconcile the many forces clouding the pursuit of a sound educational experience.
Careful planning and a good fit can help eliminate the need for debt forgiveness and cynicism.
Walter V. Wendler is the President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.