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Ongoing debate about the cost of higher education leaves many wondering about the value of a college degree. The public wants lower costs and clearer career outcomes. The Pew Research Center reports that 50% of Americans believe college should focus on job skills. Richard Vedder and Justin Strehle, in The Wall Street Journal’s commentary, argue that the earnings advantage for a bachelor’s degree has diminished – net median earnings are in decline and too many college graduates are working non-graduate jobs.

What do alumni think of their college education? Was it worth it? Eduventures’ 2017 Outcomes Survey explores the perspectives of over 1,600 college graduates of all ages.

We asked graduates if their degree was worth the money. Among respondents with at least a Bachelor’s degree (1,035), most believe the value of their education equals or exceeds the cost—37% of respondents believe the value exceeds the cost, 40% believe the value equals the cost, and 23% believe the cost exceeds the value. See Figure 1.


Value vs. Cost of EducationFigure 1.

Was college better 30 years ago?

Time since graduation matters. Students who graduated recently are more likely to believe cost exceeds value. For those that graduated thirty-one or more years ago, just 13% believe cost exceeds value, compared to 40% among graduates from the last decade. See Figure 2.


Value of Education vs. Time Since GraduationFigure 2.

We cannot simply assume that the rising cost of education caused this shift. New graduates certainly have more debt, but they also have had less time to evaluate the value of their degree. Factors related to what they originally studied, and how well connected their degree is to their current work also matter in this value vs. cost assessment.

Finding Value in Some Fields is Easier than in Others

There are stark differences in perceived value across majors. Engineering alumni, for example, are most likely to believe the value of their degree exceeds the cost (61%). In contrast, few psychology program alumni feel similarly (26%). See Figure 3.


Value of Education vs. MajorFigure 3.

Figure 3 suggests that engineering graduates might benefit from what they perceive as a clear path to a career. We examined the relationship between graduates’ views on value in light of their views of the link between their current work and their major- Figure 4.


Value of Education vs. Work Connection to Undergraduate Field of StudyFigure 4.

Alumni opinions on value differ based on the perceived closeness of the connection between their career and major. For those graduates who see a very close connection, 38% believe the value exceeds the cost and only 18% say the opposite. On the flip side, 41% of graduates who see little to no connection to their undergraduate major believe the cost of their education exceeds the value.

What does this mean for institutions?

Perhaps not surprisingly, graduates are better able to see the value of their education when there is a close connection with their current employment. Yet even among this group, 18% say that cost exceeds value, pointing to the impact of price and debt. Of course, the lesson for schools is not to ditch psychology and other majors without specific career ties. Employers call for precisely the range of transferable skills embodied in the liberal arts. The task for institutions is to help students hone and articulate graduate capabilities, and to craft more coherent and explicit curricula. Career application should be integrated throughout the student experience. Doing more to extend career development to alumni positions institutions as in the lifelong learning business, boosting graduate confidence and enrollment in refresher courses.

 

To learn more about these and other insights from our 2017 Outcomes Survey, contact your Client Research Analyst.

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