ACTA in the News | Costs

We asked 6,000 New Englanders: Is a college degree still worth the cost?

Emerson College Polling and the Globe Magazine partnered on a sweeping survey of adults around New England. Here’s what they had to say.
THE BOSTON GLOBE   |  April 11, 2024 by Laurie Hilburn

Is college still worth it?

At universities today, it’s a nearly $125,000 question — that’s how much students on campus for four years can expect to rack up in school bills, on average, according to federal data.

And here in New England, it’s a $22 billion question — that’s how much our roughly 250 colleges and universities contributed to the regional economy in 2022 alone, according to the New England Board of Higher Education.

For generations, college students have invested money — plus years of time and effort — in hopes of emerging from schools as well-rounded critical thinkers with job skills that would get them hired in a flash. And for many decades, a college degree seemed as safe a bet as you could find for a bright future. But now campuses (and college presidents) are in the crosshairs of ideological fights, overall student debt stands at a near-record $1.72 trillion, and new graduates fear AI will snatch away jobs before the ink is even dry on their diplomas.

To find what New Englanders think right now, the Globe Magazine partnered with Emerson College Polling, a nonpartisan, nationally-ranked polling center based in Boston, to survey 6,000 adults across all six states in this region. In February, we cast a wide net for respondents, including adults of any age and education status; those currently in school and people long graduated; those working or unemployed, homemaking, or retired.

For many, their reply to the question was a resounding Yes. In New England, our survey revealed, folks who show notable support for the idea that a college degree is worth the expense includes students who are working full time (71 percent agree), current students who aren’t working (64 percent), Hispanic/Latino people (58 percent), Asian people (56 percent), Democrats (56 percent), people with advanced degrees (55 percent), and 18- to 24-year-olds (51 percent). Even respondents who didn’t finish high school are pro-college (53 percent).

However, when you look at answers for all 6,000 New England adults combined, opinions are split nearly down the middle. While 46 percent agree that a four-year college degree is worth the expense, 44 percent disagree and 10 percent neither agree nor disagree. Groups with particularly high levels of disagreement include vocational and technical school grads (63 percent disagree), people with an associate’s degree (51 percent), and Republicans (51 percent).

There are doubts about college in our region, to be sure, but higher education here doesn’t have the thoroughly chilly reception it has earned nationally. A March 2023 Wall Street Journal-NORC survey of 1,019 US adults found that 56 percent said a college degree isn’t worth the cost. More than 60 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds in that survey had also lost faith in the value of a degree — a notable difference from ours, which shows young New Englanders still supporting it.

At the state level, our survey found Connecticut residents have the highest support for college, at 49 percent, followed by Rhode Island, at 48 percent. Opinions are mixed in Massachusetts and Vermont. And in New Hampshire and Maine, the largest share of respondents who weighed in say college isn’t worth it.

As for how most New Englanders define “worth it,” respondents overwhelmingly drew a direct line between college and career. Forty percent of respondents said the main reason to attend college was to get a good job (followed by “to make more money,” at 24 percent). This was the top reported answer for every state, age, education level, race/ethnicity, and political leaning.

Equally striking, our survey revealed that 56 percent of New England adults believe that a college degree is essential for landing a good job. While this shows an overwhelming belief in the promise of college, that support suggests a sharp drop from 13 years ago, when a Gallup-Lumina survey found that 69 percent of respondents nationwide said a degree is essential.

Other Gallup surveys found the portion of US adults ages 18 to 29 saying a college degree is “very important” plunged from 74 percent in 2013 to 41 percent in 2019.

“A college education is worth it, no question,” says Lawrence Schall, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, an accrediting agency for colleges and universities in the region and beyond. He points to the long-term earning power of a degree, known as the college wage premium, compared with not having one. “With the return on investment, over a lifetime of work, how do those rates progress? That premium [with a degree] almost doubles.”

But studies show that historic economic advantage has been eroding for recent graduates as loans and other debts have skyrocketed. And amid these higher-than-ever stakes of making the wrong choice, the cost-benefit analysis undertaken by prospective students and their families has gotten far more complicated.

Things are different now than when Lisa Cornelio, a 58-year-old survey respondent from Connecticut, and her siblings went to college. “I grew up in an old New England mill town, so most folks were blue collar,” she says. “For whatever reason, my mom was able to encourage my dad to send all of us to great institutions, and he had the resources to do that.” Cornelio was also able to work jobs while attending Princeton, and didn’t need to take out loans.

Now, however, Cornelio works as a social worker and college consultant, and sees the different kinds of struggles her students go through. “It’s not even the top-tier institutions that are expensive, but community colleges, too,” she says. She asks her students a core question, one she didn’t necessarily need to ask herself in school: “You have to do a real inventory: What are you doing this for?”

Julie Reuben, a historian at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has seen the risks when students start school but don’t finish. “Going into higher education is very expensive,” she says, “and what is particularly expensive is not finishing.” Almost a third of the 2.4 million students who started college in 2017 have since left without earning a degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “These students take on loans but do not get the economic benefit of a four-year degree.”

The risks didn’t used to be this high. Adjusted for inflation, students at four-year colleges face tuition costs that have more than tripled in the past six decades. “Generationally, it was [once]much easier to get a college degree, affordable enough to work your way through,” Reuben says. “Students could go without gaining a lot of debt. That’s the reality they knew.” But today, she continues, “To graduate without significant debt, you have to come from a well-resourced family or go to a school with financial aid.”

In the Globe Magazine-Emerson College Polling survey, 52 percent of New England adults said their college degrees were not worth the loans they needed to get them, and now regret taking on that debt. A similar portion of respondents — 53 percent — support using government funds to reduce or forgive student loans, though the Republican and age 60-plus segments show strong opposition.

People such as Michael Poliakoff believe it’s not just the cost of college that is draining support: What is taught is inadequate to prepare students for many jobs. Moreover, colleges have become an “echo chamber” of ideas, he says. “It used to be a diploma from a four-year college would get you a good job,” says Poliakoff, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “So many employers are not confident in newly hired four-year college graduates.”

The concept of free speech on campuses is hotly contested. When our survey asked respondents to choose which was the bigger problem for colleges, 52 percent reported it’s people being allowed to say harmful or misleading things, while the rest believe it’s people being prevented from saying what they want.

“Take these findings as a wake-up call,” says Poliakoff, whose organization advocates for the free exchange of ideas on campus. “College should be a place where you think the unthinkable and challenge the unchallengeable. . . . It should be an opportunity for everyone to come out with greater strength for career and citizenry.”

Lisa Cornelio, the social worker and college counselor from Connecticut, tries to remind her students that “there are a lot of options for greatness.” For some, that’s going from high school to college. “A good education can expand your mind,” she says, “bring you the confidence to go after things that, without that degree, you may hold yourself back from.”

But for others, success is ignoring the drumbeat (and peer pressure) that a four-year degree is the only path. “If you have a dream and a vision, then you can get going on it,” she says. “I think vocational schools and training can do wonders, and people end up living great lives because they’re out doing what they love every day, and it didn’t involve going to a four-year institution.”

According to the Globe Magazine-Emerson College Polling survey, New England adults seem to agree with Cornelio about options. When asked what a high schooler should do after graduation — assuming no obstacles stood in the way — 39 percent say attend a four-year college. But the next highest answer — at 23 percent — was to enter a non-college training program. (For 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed, the second choice is to enter the workforce.)

Lawrence Schall’s accreditation agency, the New England Commission of Higher Education, recently announced it would consider accreditation proposals from colleges looking to offer bachelor’s degrees in fewer than the traditional 120 credits, which could mean going for three years rather than four. The idea is to get people out of the classroom and into the job market sooner and less burdened by debt (Merrimack College and New England College have both expressed interest).

“The power of American education is in the diversity of institutions,” Schall says. “All with different admissions, price points, outcomes — the information is out there for people to find their place.” The Harvards and MITs represent only a sliver of New England institutions, he points out, adding there is a huge number of smaller colleges here where an “extraordinary education” is available at an affordable price.

“People think of college as one thing,” Schall says, “but it is nowhere near one thing.”

This article appeared on The Boston Globe on April 11, 2024.


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