By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.
According to a new survey, Americans overwhelmingly recognize the benefits in earning a college degree. Moreover, that agreement crosses partisan, age and education lines.
And, as the saying goes, it has the benefit of being true. On finances alone, a college degree pays off amazingly well, returning future career earnings many times its cost. In terms of sheer financial return, a college degree remains the best investment most people can or will ever make. And that’s only counting dollars in, dollars out, which is the worst possible way to measure the value of advanced education.
Still, the survey from the non-partisan Public Agenda shows that a whopping 86% of Americans “across political affiliations agree that a college education can help working adults advance their careers.” The same survey showed that 64% “believe that people with a high school diploma would make a better living if they got a college education.”
The survey also found that, “75 percent believe that there would be positive impacts on people’s ability to earn a good living if more people in their state had a college education, and 71 percent believe that there would be positive impacts on their state’s capacity to attract employers—including majorities across the political spectrum.”
A robust 71% said they “think a college education helps people become informed, engaged citizens.”
Those folks – the 75% and 86% and 64% – are right.
That more and better education makes people more employable overall and more likely to land high-wage, high-profile careers is not news. That’s been true since anyone started keeping track.
It probably should not be big news that Americans agree with it either. In a world that makes sense, agreement that college graduates earn more money should be as newsworthy as Americans agreeing that P comes after N in the alphabet. If anything, what’s surprising is that a quarter of us don’t agree that a college education helps people “earn a good living.”
Still, what’s most surprising is that the few news outlets that covered the survey didn’t focus on the broad recognition of college’s benefits, preferring to focus on the finding that Americans are roughly evenly divided by the concept of whether a college degree is “worth it.” About half, according to the survey, thought “the economic benefits of a college education outweigh the costs” while about half did not think so.
One industry outlet took that finding to make part of their headline, “survey shows Democrats and Republicans alike are pessimistic of the long-term benefits of a college degree,” which isn’t true at all. There’s solid agreement on the benefits. There’s a divide on the value – whether the benefits trump the costs.
To be clear, there’s no factual argument to be had that the benefits of a college degree do not outweigh the costs – unless you count for-profit colleges. Of the college degrees that don’t return real value, almost all are from investment-driven, for-profit colleges. Excluding those, on average and in nearly every circumstance, a college degree dramatically outweighs its costs, and by significant margins.
That split on the value question is easy to de-code with some thought. When people agree about how great something is but retreat on the idea of its “value,” they’re really telling you they think it costs too much. That’s fair. Not necessarily that college costs too much, but that people think it does.
Further, the survey itself says that the group most likely to say a degree isn’t worth its relative cost is, “young people without degrees.” Let’s not call that group an objective subset. That feels more like rationalization than analysis.
Even so, another few moments of thought may illuminate why a significant portion of Americans may be recently confused as to the value of college. Namely that in the past decade or so a significant number of businesses have become literally invested in selling alternatives to college – the digital badges, the micro-credentials, the online courses from “creators,” the dead-end coding camps and so-called stackable credentials.
Few of these alternatives have shown to have much value, if any. But that has not stopped investors and entrepreneurs from pouring billions of dollars into their creation and marketing. And those products are easier to sell if people believe that college is too expensive or takes too long or is too outdated. The first rule of politics if you’re a challenger is to convince people to fire the incumbent. On this, the challengers have made great progress.
The ‘buy my product instead of going to college’ cadre has been aided in no insignificant measure by incessant and inaccurate reporting that cannot or will not tell the difference between the “benefits” of college and its perceived “value.” And by reports on college debt without context or clarity. Colleges themselves have been a clumsy ally too, consistently doing a poor job of defending or defining their value – marketplace or otherwise.
In other words, it’s little wonder why some Americans think college is not a great value – they’ve been told it’s not, and loudly so by the people who profit from that miscalculation.
We should not need a survey to confirm the benefits of a college education, but it’s good that we have one. It’s a strong place to start the path back to re-convincing people that not only does a college education confer great financial rewards, it’s also absolutely “worth it.”