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Is college worth it? Survey shows only 36% of Americans have confidence in higher education

By JOCELYN GECKER – Associated Press

Americans are increasingly skeptical about the benefits and costs of college, with most saying the U.S. higher education system is heading in the “wrong direction,” according to a new poll.

Overall, only 36 percent of adults say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in higher education, according to the report released Monday by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation. That level of confidence has been steadily declining since 2015, when it was 57 percent.

Some of these opinions are reflected in declining enrollment numbers as colleges grapple with the impact of the student debt crisis, concerns about high tuition costs, and political debates about how they teach about race and other issues.

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The bleaker assessment of whether college is worth the time and money cuts across all demographics—including gender, age, and political affiliation. Among Republicans, the number of respondents with high confidence in higher education has dropped 36 percentage points over the past decade—far more than among Democrats or independents.

“It’s so expensive and I don’t think colleges are teaching people what they need to get a job,” said Randy Hill, 59, a registered Republican in Connecticut and a driver for a car service. His nephew plans to become a welder after graduating from high school. “You graduate college, you’re up to your ears in debt, you can’t get a job and you can’t pay off the debt. What’s the point?”

The overall result of the June 2024 survey – that 36% of adults have a great deal of confidence in higher education – is unchanged from last year. But what worries researchers is the shift in opinion at the lower end of the scale: Fewer Americans say they have “some” confidence, and more say “very little” and “none.” This year’s results show that almost as many people have little or no confidence (32%) as people with high confidence.

Experts say a decline in college graduates could exacerbate labor shortages in fields such as health care and information technology. Those who forego college often have lower lifetime earnings – 75 percent less than those with bachelor’s degrees, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And in times of economic recession, people without degrees are more likely to lose their jobs.

“It’s sad to see that confidence hasn’t increased at all,” says Courtney Brown, vice president of Lumina, a nonprofit education organization that works to increase the number of students pursuing an education after high school. “What shocks me is that the number of people who have little or no confidence is actually increasing.”

To understand the reasons for declining trust, new, detailed questions were added to this year’s survey.

Nearly a third of respondents say college is “too expensive,” and 24% feel students are not receiving an adequate education or learning what they need to succeed.

This year’s protests against the Gaza war, which divided many universities, were not specifically addressed in the survey, but political views strongly influenced the results. Respondents expressed concerns about indoctrination, political bias and that universities today are too liberal. Among respondents who lack confidence, 41% cite political intentions as a reason.

More than two-thirds (67%) of respondents say college is heading in the “wrong direction,” compared to just 31% who say it is heading in the right direction.

When people express confidence in higher education, they generally think of four-year institutions, according to Gallup. But the poll found that more people have confidence in two-year institutions. Forty-nine percent of adults say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in two-year programs, compared to 33 percent of Americans who have that opinion about four-year colleges.

California college student Kristen Freeman understands why.

“It’s about saving money. That’s why I decided to do a two-year degree. You get more for your money,” says Freeman, 22, a sociology student at Diablo Valley Community College who plans to transfer to San Jose State University for the final two years of his studies.

Freeman understands concerns about indoctrination and whether college prepares students for life and careers, but also believes structural problems can only be solved from within. “I’m learning about the world around me and developing useful critical thinking skills,” Freeman says. “I think higher education can give students the impetus to want to change the system.”

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