Here's why so many college grads are unhappy

Last Updated Sep 30, 2015 12:24 PM EDT

Is college worth the price?

The latest results from an ambitious Gallup-Purdue research project show that only 50 percent of alumni of the nation's private and public colleges and universities strongly agreed that they got their money's worth for their bachelor's degree -- and even fewer younger grads believe so.

Slightly more graduates of public universities (52 percent) believe strongly that their education was worth the financial commitment than did grads of private institutions (47 percent). Grads who attended research universities, a category that includes the Ivies and other prestigious brand-name schools, were no more likely to be happy at the cost of their degrees than students who attended state schools.

Slightly more graduates of public universities (52 percent) believe strongly that their education was worth the financial commitment than did grads of private institutions (47 percent). Grads who attended research universities, a category that includes the Ivies and other prestigious brand-name schools, were no more likely to be happy at the cost of their degrees than students who attended state schools.

Newer graduates, those receiving degrees between 2006 and 2015, were significantly less satisfied. Only 38 percent of this group thought the price was justified.

These younger grads are experiencing the heaviest debt load. Sixty-three percent took out loans, with the median amount at $30,000. Only one in three who borrowed agree strongly that their education was worth the cost.

"Given that higher education has become one of the largest financial investments a person will make over their lifetime, it's a bit alarming that only half of all graduates strongly agree their education was worth the cost," said Brandon Busteed, Gallup's executive director for education and workforce development. "Clearly, we all need to work harder on improving quality and reducing cost as much as possible."

An interesting conclusion of the study, which surveyed more than 30,000 Americans is this: Students were much more likely to consider the cost worthwhile if they could identify with any of six key factors that the research has found is linked to alumni well being and happiness at work.

Graduates were 1.9 times more likely to say their education was worth the cost if they believe professors at their university cared about them as people. The likelihood of being satisfied was equally higher for grads who said they had a mentor at the college who encouraged them to pursue their dreams and goals.

The Gallup-Purdue survey is a part of an ongoing quest to determine what constitutes a great college education that will prepare graduates to succeed and prosper not only in the workplace, but also in their personal lives. In determining a person's well being, the researchers asked grads about their relationships, their physical health, their community, financial situation and their sense of purpose.

The survey, which will continue annually through 2018, is an attempt to fill the void created by superficial ways of measuring the quality of colleges such as U.S. News & World Report's rankings, which use an institution's wealth and selectivity as proxies of educational quality.

In last year's inaugural Gallup-Purdue survey, the researchers generated findings that should be eye-opening to parents and teens who believe gaining admission into the Ivies and other elite research universities is the only true way to guarantee success in life.

The initial survey results concluded that the type of school a student attended -- public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective -- hardly mattered at all to their happiness at work and in their well-being. What was highly significant was what students did at whatever schools they attended.

The Gallup-Purdue study pinpointed the following six factors that the researchers said strongly related to great jobs and satisfying lives after college:

  • Had at least one professor who made students excited about learning.
  • Had professors who cared about the student as a person.
  • Had a mentor who encouraged the student to pursue goals and dreams.
  • Worked on a project that took at least a semester to complete.
  • Had internship or job that allowed student to apply what was learned in the classroom.
  • Was extremely active in collegiate extracurricular activities.

Sadly, only 3 percent of graduates who participated in the first Gallup-Purdue survey could answer yes to all six factors.