Is college necessary? Is it worth it? For a time, it appeared those questions were the fading residue of a passing age as people increasingly viewed college as critical to the American dream: Earn a degree, get a decent job, have a good life.
Thus, when Public Agenda asked people in a 2000 survey if a college degree is necessary for success in today's work world, only 31 percent said it was. But as we continued to ask that question over the years, we saw that number steadily rise until, in 2008, a full 55 percent of people surveyed said that a college education is necessary.
In the world of survey results, that's a dramatic ascent, and given the correlation between higher education and rising income, we expected that upward trend to continue. But when we ran the question again in 2016, just 42 percent agreed that college is essential to success in today's world.
What happened? While more research is needed to dig into the question, we hypothesize that several factors have combined, since the Great Recession, to cut away at people's confidence in higher education and its value.
Most obviously, people worry about the cost and crushing debt that comes with pursuing a college degree, especially in the face of an uncertain job market with fewer and fewer stable, middle-class jobs. For adults looking to return to school or start at a later age, add time away from family, child care expenses and working a full-time job. Then, factor in the rise of the gig economy, and people may be feeling they might as well piece together an insecure existence, rather than incur debt and be faced with a shaky economic situation anyway.
One more thing: About the same time that our research found people losing faith in higher education, we also saw a peak in the perception that colleges are more concerned with "the bottom line" than the success of their students. In 2007, a slight majority, 52 percent, said that colleges care more about the bottom line compared to 43 percent who said that colleges care most about "making sure students have a good educational experience," a gap of only 9 percent. Just two years later, in 2009, that gap had ballooned to 28 percent and has hovered around that level ever since.
Higher education should take from this that college needs to be both more affordable and more student-centered in our age of economic transition and uncertainty. Institutions should also be thinking about how to reconcile the waning confidence in higher education with the reality that in today's world, more and more jobs require some form of post-secondary schooling. Forward-looking higher education leaders are doing just that, as was the case when I recently participated on a panel for the New England Board of Higher Education.
We will explore these issues and attitudes in our upcoming report on the experiences and needs of adult prospective students. For a sneak peek, listen to what some of these "new traditional students" had to say in these captivating interviews:
Stay tuned for updates on this and our other work in higher education.