Is College a Bad Deal? More Than Half of Americans Say Yes

Last Updated May 18, 2011 4:33 AM EDT

By the figures, the economy is America may be bouncing back, but it certainly won't look the same as it did in the past. Amongst all this change, it makes sense that American families are wondering how to set their kids on a track for a stable economic future and, apparently, even that pillar of middle-class advancement and future job stability -- college -- is being questioned.

Is the humungous price tag worth it? We've discussed the issue plenty on BNET and opinion among readers was mixed. According to a new poll from The Pew Research Center that's very representative -- Americans are completely unsure about the value of higher education.

Pew asked 2,142 adults for their opinion on higher education and also spoke with the presidents of 1,055 private, public, and for-profit colleges and universities in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education. The results show some serious ambivalence about the worth of a diploma:
  • A majority (57 percent) said the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money.
  • A huge majority (75 percent) said college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.
  • However, an even larger majority of college graduates (86 percent) say that college was a good investment for them personally.
  • Americans are well informed about the pay-offs of a college education -- Adults who graduated from a four-year college believe that, on average, they earn $20,000 more a year as a result of their degree. Adults who did not attend college believe they earn $20,000 less. The actual figure from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010: $19,550.
  • Parents may question the value, but they still overwhelmingly want their kids to go. 94 percent said they expect their child to attend college. In reality a majority of American kids do not go to college.
  • Americans' slightly schizophrenic attitude towards higher ed continues to the purpose of going to college. Around half (47 percent) says it's to teach work-related skills and knowledge, while a slightly smaller but still large percentage (39 percent) believes it's to help a student grow personally and intellectually. Everyone else said both.
  • For those who've actually graduated four-year college, most have positive things to say about the experience. 74 percent say their college education was very useful in helping them grow intellectually; 69 percent say it was very useful in helping them grow and mature as a person; and 55 percent say it was very useful in helping them prepare for a job or career. It is interesting though that the smallest percentage agree that college was helpful for their career.
So what can we make of these numbers? It's obvious students enjoy college as an experience and ideally parents want to send their kids -- the issue clearly isn't with the experience but with how it aligns with the price.

A $20,000 a year pay-off over the course of a hypothetical 30-year career, certainly covers the average price of a four-year degree (back in '06-'07 that was $12,796 at public university and $30,367 at private ones including room and board -- it's certainly higher now) but that kind of outlay upfront is daunting for a huge number of families, and surely produce anxiety about ROI, especially given the shifting state of the job market and the difficulty in knowing what skills will be profitable in the future. Plus, only about half of students who start at a four-year program finish within six years, representing a large slice of people who paid significant costs but won't reap the rewards of having a degree.

Which half of Americans are you with -- those who say college is bad value for money or those who think it's a good investment?

Read More on BNET: (Image courtesy of Josh Parrish, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.

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