Is college worth it?

Student perceptions on the value higher education brings to their careers

Introduction

As part of our Handshake Network Trends efforts, we wanted to contribute to the important and growing conversation on the value of higher education through our survey of over 500 higher education professionals and over 2,400 students (weighted by gender and race/ethnicity) in the Handshake network. 

Acknowledging the complexity of “value”, we decided to focus on two areas relating to student and higher education sentiment at the current moment: 

  • First, how do college students in the Handshake network, particularly a cohort impacted by one of the most disruptive events in American higher education history, view the role of their education in preparing them for their career
  • Second, do these students feel that their education was “worth the cost”? Does this align with or diverge from what career service professionals believe students feel about the “value” of higher education? 

Below are our takeaways: 

Increased Focus on Value

https://joinhandshake.com/blog/career-centers/is-college-worth-it/(opens in a new tab)

Even before COVID-19, “value” had become one of the most widely discussed topics in higher education. National polling has highlighted how Americans have, in a relatively short time, become less confident about the value of higher education: according to a survey conducted by Gallup in 2019, just over half (51 percent) of Americans believed a college education was “very important”, a 19 point decrease from 70 percent of U.S. adults in 2013.

A similar focus on value has emerged in the policy and practitioner world: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Value Commission found “interest in defining postsecondary value has never been greater”, with the COVID-19 pandemic “deepen[ing] the public’s scrutiny of issues related to college value”. 

Overwhelmingly, students believe that higher education has played an important role in career preparation

9 out of 10 students surveyed believed that higher education played an important role in preparing them for their future career. In contrast to our findings that students of color and women prefer virtual recruiting, this did not meaningfully differ across gender or race/ethnicity subgroups and represents one of the only areas in our question set where there was widespread consensus. 

Importantly, this response reflects the sentiments of students who had experienced over a year of disrupted education. While 92 percent of students agreed that higher education played an important role in their career preparation, they also indicated a heightened level of stress associated with the job search: almost two-thirds of students stated that COVID-19 made the job search more stressful

Taken together, these results suggest that students may not associate the difficulties of the job search with the overall importance higher education has played in their career. 

Moreover, these results provide additional evidence that some of the early, worst case “doomsday scenarios” (in which colleges and universities would be unable to fully support students) had not come to pass, speaking to the resilience of both students and institutions of higher education.

A majority of students believe higher education is “worth the cost”

Almost two-thirds of students surveyed (63 percent) agreed that higher education is “worth the cost” to students. This held across all groups, though notably, the response here was less unified than the previous question covering career preparation: 17 percent of respondents “did not agree or disagree” that higher education was worth the cost, while the remaining 20 percent did not agree with the statement. 

Higher education stakeholders were also surveyed and asked whether they believed that current students viewed their higher education experience as “worth the cost”: 51 percent thought students would say it was worth the cost, 12 percent points lower than students surveyed. This misalignment demonstrates a potential misreading of student resilience, though this figure is consistent with a national New America survey of students from August 2020.

Admittedly, defining whether higher education is “worth the cost” is highly complex due to the diverse pathways students may take toward a credential, as well as the different levels of access to grants and other financial support. Nevertheless, the response is striking given the cohort’s experience during COVID-19. 

Conclusion

The Postsecondary Value Commission’s Equitable Value report posits that college and university students experience value by gaining the “knowledge, skills, and networks needed to be successful in work and life”. Our results indicate that the cohort of college and university students whose educational journeys were directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic still believe that they received important preparation for their career. Furthermore, the majority of students still see higher education as worth the cost, exceeding the expectations of higher education professionals. 

Despite these results, it is also important to note the large number of students who were impacted throughout the pandemic: as a recent National Student Clearinghouse report shows, undergraduate enrollment dropped nearly 5 percent this past spring over last year. 
As institutions, employers, students, and families consider what the “new normal” looks like, it will be more important than ever to think about how institutions can deliver value to all students. One way to do this will be to build on the findings on virtual recruiting and equity: by providing students with varied points of entry to networks and opportunities, institutions can create a more flexible and less intimidating environment for students to engage and pursue career opportunities.

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