More than 40% of Americans say a college education is not a necessary tool in leading a successful professional life, according to a recent survey from Public Agenda, a nonprofit educational research and assessment organization.
The revelation, taken from a survey of 1,006 Americans aged 18 or older, represents a 13% drop in confidence since the national recession of 2008, parallels other attitudes about the number of ways Americans can find career success, concerns about the job market, and the costs associated with higher education.
Officials say that results show a growing discomfort with many external factors related to career access or mobility, things which have been long-standing and near-certain guarantees for college graduates.
“We have speculated around the sense-making that with the recession, the confidence in the assumption that many made was that credentials would lead to a job, has been fundamentally undermined,” says Alison Kadlec, senior vice president and director of Higher Education & Workforce Programs for Public Agenda. “People are dealing with real issues related to cost containment and uncertain results in the labor market, and we’re hearing more and more people say that there’s a real question on if college is worth it without the guarantee of a job.”
According to data published by the U.S. Department of Education, college tuition at all four-year institutions increased from an annual average of $11,000 in 1983 to more than $24,700 in 2013. The national unemployment rate, which reached a 24-year high in 2010 with 9.8% of Americans without jobs, has been cut to 4.9% in the most recent labor estimates.
Even as state appropriations for higher education have increased by more than 4% since 2008, students and families continue to deal with rising costs for associated educational expenses. With textbooks averaging $1,300 per academic year, and cost of living increases with transportation and housing increase, the financial stressors of college are a unique challenge for what Kadlec calls the “new traditional college student.”
“There is persistent inattention to the shift in today’s students. When we think about students, it’s an 18-year-old, well-prepared student going from high school to college,” says Kadlec. “Now it is a student who is working, has a family, who may not be as confident in their academic preparation. That is the student who is becoming the traditional student, while those affluent, straight-from-high-school products are decreasing as the norm.”
According to the survey, 46% of respondents believe college to be a questionable financial investment because of costs and associated loan debt, and limited job opportunities. 69% of Americans believe that there are people who are qualified to go to college, but are limited in opportunities, and 59% of respondents believe that colleges are like most businesses and care only about the bottom line.
Virginia State University President Makola Abdullah says that the perceptions are directly tied to the ability of schools to communicate the ties between higher education and personal success.
“It really speaks to the idea that universities do not communicate our value well," he says. "In the past, everyone understood our value, so we just waited for people to come. Now we are in an age where customers, students and parents, have more information. They want to know what the value is, and the entities which have done that best are online institutions. But traditional institutions did not explain the opportunities, the benefits of completion."
Virginia State last month announced a 30% increase in first-year student enrollment from the previous year, an achievement that Abdullah says stems from an increased focus on selling the pathways from education to graduation to employment. That growth matches a June survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which a majority of college and university presidents expressed concern with the decreasing value of higher education. But they also expressed optimism about the continuing value of college in helping to prepare students to find, and excel in careers: a notion that parallels other data on professional fulfillment, but with a dramatically different context.
A recent Gallup survey suggests that higher exposure to good customer service in higher education, primarily shown through faculty mentoring and exposure to internships and extracurricular activity, promotes a greater sense of professional fulfillment and well-being after graduation. From the report’s executive summary:
“If colleges and universities were to get serious about aligning values, culture and incentives to put student engagement first, there is much they would do differently. They would measure their success by the success of their graduates. They would measure whether graduates achieve great jobs and great lives. They would change how they operate. They would demand all students — not just a handful — receive career planning, mentoring and developmental opportunities, and instill them with a sense of well-being in how they lead their lives. They would align staff and faculty incentives with these demands.”
But credentialing remains at the core of higher education measurements, and a metric to which the US Department of Education is paying close attention. As the federal government has cracked down on for-profit schools receiving federal student loan disbursements with low outcomes in employment and loan repayment, two large for-profit colleges, Corinthians Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, have closed in the last six months under the new guidelines and financial restrictions levied by the department.
Simultaneously, the agency has authorized some private companies to partner with nonprofit schools to develop innovative workforce development programs that will lead to degrees and specific industrial certifications. Students enrolled in these programs will be eligible for financial aid, and will have direct access to work immediately after graduation.
But as these programs continue to gain traction and attention in the public square, Kadlec says there are serious questions higher education leaders will have to address in restoring confidence in the value of a college degree, and the definition of the college experience.
“People are increasingly of the mind that goal clarity for students, college and credentials are too expensive, the time commitment to intense and the debt to significant for students to not have clarity about their goals. This is an interesting challenge to the notion of free exploration, and it seems like we’re looking at a breach in the social contract, which is that education is the path to a better future,” she says.
But some experts say that even with challenges, there is no other path to professional prosperity without some form of education.
"College prices and student debt have risen, and some people naturally question the value of higher education," said Tom Harnisch, Director of State Relations and Policy Analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "But on the whole, a college education is a solid investment. There are disparities, some colleges and some programs are better than others, but it comes down to value and what you’re getting for your money. Students and their families need to look at the colleges and the programs and consider the job market and make decisions from there."
Harnisch says that more jobs are going to require some form of credentialing or higher education in the next ten year, and the the labor force working outside of these requirements will offer wages that may not be livable.
“What colleges should say to families is to look at the data, and its clear. Without some form of an education or job training, Americans will have an uphill climb to the middle class," he says.
The data can be deceiving. Most narratives suggest that upward mobility is best refined in STEM related disciplines and industries, but a recent report calling for a greater emphasis on the liberal arts suggests that many industries, including science and technology fields, will be dramatically impacted by a deficit of employees who can think critically, manage and use creativity in their industrial space without enhanced training in the arts.
That division, Kadlec says, is at the core of the growing distrust in higher education.
“There’s a tremendous range of modern credentials that aren’t captured in public assumptions about college. We have not yet, as a country, had a sophisticated conversation about what 21st century credentials looks like," Kadlec says. "We continue to fall into the idea of two kinds of education: education for work and education for life. The fact is that employers in the 21st century don’t think that distinction holds up. Critical thinking, problem solving, information gathering, interrogating data, communicating effectively and dealing with diversity are 21st century skills, and so colleges are going to have to deal with the notion that the public knows something is going on here, and it that the issues must be attended to.”
"We’ve got to be very conscientious about what we're telling young people, 18-year-olds who are making decisions that will impact the rest of their lives," Abdullah says. "Sometimes, I think we make the mistake of leading with history and the tradition of our schools. Young people do not necessarily want to know about our history, but our value in their lives. Once we do that, we can back to the history to suggest it as part of the evidence in what they are looking to earn."
"They can’t dig for it, we have to deliver to them what excites people about higher education, and that is opportunity."