Americans Increasingly Skeptical of Value of Four-Year Degrees

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

Americans are finally getting wise to the value of a four-year college degree. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds a significant growth in skepticism over the past four years, especially among Americans who haven’t graduated from a four-year college.

Overall, 49% of Americans believe that earning a four-year degree will lead to a good job and higher lifetime earnings, compared to 47% who don’t — a two-percentage point gap. Four years ago, that gap was 13 points.

Skeptics number in the majority — 57% to 37% — among Americans 18 to 34 years old. That should come as no surprise, as that age group has taken on a disproportionate share of the $1.3 trillion in outstanding student debt and is having the greatest trouble repaying it.

A majority of women still have faith in the four-year degree, reports the Wall Street Journal, but men’s attitude has undergone a dramatic reversal. Four years ago, men saw college as worth the cost by a 12-point margin; today they say its not, by a 10-point margin.

Many observers pushed college attendance on the astonishing superficial grounds that college graduates on average earn higher salaries and experience a lower unemployment rate than those who never went to college. What such analysis ignores is that the average earnings and unemployment for all college grads is not necessarily typical of earnings and unemployment of college grads on the margins, who were less academically prepared, received lower grades, attended less prestigious institutions. It also ignores the ugly reality of millions of Americans who racked up large debts attending college but failed to graduate.

Awareness is spreading that people can earn solid middle-class wages with a couple of years of technical training, without losing two years of earnings attending a four-year college or spending tens of thousands of tuition, fees, room, and board. The WSJ gave a great example:

Jeff McKenna, a 32-year-old from Loveland, Colo. said he doesn’t believe college is worth the cost. Mr. McKenna went to a trade school, earning a certificate as a mechanic and how earns a base salary of $50,000 a year. He said he has never gone three weeks without a job, including during the recession.

“I have friends from high school that are making half what I’m making, and they went and got a four-year degree or better, and they’re still $50, $60, $70,000 dollars in debt,” Mr. McKenna said. “There’s a huge need for skilled labor in this country.”

Indeed there is. As more people — young men, mostly — think like Jeff McKenna, there will be a growing demand for community colleges and trade schools that teach marketable blue-collar skills. Skepticism runs greatest in the college-age population, making it likely that four-year colleges will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their enrollments. Those at greatest risk are institutions that appeal to precisely those demographics — rural, lower-income, male — where skepticism runs the deepest.

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3 responses to “Americans Increasingly Skeptical of Value of Four-Year Degrees

  1. yeah – I think the issue is not “4 year degrees” per se.

    For instance, if you asked people , instead, if there is a need for more education than high school . you’ d probably get a high percent of “yes”.

    It’s not so much how many years of Higher Ed.. not even the traditional “4 yrs”… it’s HOW you get the additional education and more and more people are thinking there are a lot of different ways to do that over different time periods.. that just 4 contiguous years at a residential college.

    There is more emphasis on the course content being more directly related/relevant to how work is actually done.. For instance, don’t learn just how to code… learn how code is actually done for real programs in use…. etc….

    you no longer go for 4 years of “education” then start a career – … “education” is now a continuing and never ending aspect to a lot of occupations these days. You get a job and sit on it – others will come along with better more up-to-date qualifications and compete for your position!

    It will be imperative for people to continue to update their education… at providers that are not 4-yr institutions…

    “Online” is going to become more and more an important source – even at higher ed traditional courses.. out of classroom “online” is going to be the “homework”, the pop quizzes and the testing.. your fingerprint or iris likely will be how they will validate it’s you doing the work.

    4-yr will not go away – but it will become more and more a niche type option.. in my opinion… The 21st century has pretty much destroyed the idea that you go away for four years and finished “ready for a career”.

    Not something for govt to “fix”.. just get out of the way.

  2. It would be interesting to see a graph of the percent of each generation finishing high school and then going on to college. A century ago college was quite rare. The assumption is the GI Bill bent that curve after WWII and perhaps we have now reached a plateau, and a downward slide is starting. It is certainly true that a highly-skilled worker (these days male or female) can make an excellent living without a four year degree, and certainly isn’t going that route if the degree comes with major debt.

    Another good question is whether the on-line degrees are being accepted by employers when the position really does require it. Are engineers getting hired without the classroom degree? Would you hire a nurse who only studied on-line? Will an on-line degree get you into graduate or professional school? The flashy advertising fails to mention. I think there are severe limits to the on-line degrees and at best a hybrid system will emerge.

    The real value of a the college experience is intangible. Education for its own sake. That is the value that may not be recognized in this information overload society, and unfortunately as colleges develop more of a reputation as single-view ideological echo chambers – “safe spaces” – the value is eroding. Real debate is now dangerous to a student or professor. Thinking out loud is discouraged.

  3. The difference between men and women appears significant. As pointed out, men have had a significant shift to “not worth it” responses, while the female responses change little. I’ve read that the overall college population will be 60% female and 40% male by 2020. UVA and W&M are now about 56% and 58% female, respectively. It looks like there could be a growing education gap.

    Although overall donations to higher education are growing, the percentage of alumni making donations to their alma mater has declined by about 50% over the last twenty years or so. This may be another sign that satisfaction with return on investment is declining.

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