One of the hallmarks of a successful society is the widespread belief that education is a key to success. For that to be true there have to be 1) enough jobs farther up the food chain to make four more years of studying worthwhile, and 2) schools that are good and cheap enough to make the equation work financially.
The US is losing both:
The findings reflect an increase in public skepticism of higher education from just four years ago and highlight a growing divide in opinion falling along gender, educational, regional and partisan lines. They also carry political implications for universities, already under public pressure to rein in their costs and adjust curricula after decades of sharp tuition increases.
Overall, a slim plurality of Americans, 49%, believes earning a four-year degree will lead to a good job and higher lifetime earnings, compared with 47% who don’t, according to the poll of 1,200 people taken Aug. 5-9. That two-point margin narrowed from 13 points when the same question was asked four years earlier.
The shift was almost entirely due to growing skepticism among Americans without four-year degrees—those who never enrolled in college, who took only some classes or who earned a two-year degree. Four years ago, that group used to split almost evenly on the question of whether college was worth the cost. Now, skeptics outnumber believers by a double-digit margin.
Conversely, opinion among college graduates is almost identical to that of four years ago, with 63% saying college is worth the cost versus 31% who say it isn’t.
Big shifts occurred within several groups. While women by a large margin still have faith in a four-year degree, opinion among men swung significantly. Four years ago, men by a 12-point margin saw college as worth the cost. Now, they say it is not worth it, by a 10-point margin.
Likewise, among Americans 18 to 34 years old, skeptics outnumber believers 57% to 39%, almost a mirror image from four years earlier.
Today, Democrats, urban residents and Americans who consider themselves middle- and upper-class generally believe college is worth it; Republicans, rural residents and people who identify themselves as poor or working-class Americans don’t.
Research shows that college graduates, on average, fare far better economically than those without a degree. For example, the unemployment rate is 2.7% among college graduates, compared with 5.1% among high school graduates who never attended college, and Labor Department research shows that bachelor’s degree recipients earn higher salaries than those who never went to college. But the wage premium of getting a degree has flattened in recent years, Federal Reserve research shows.
Student debt has surged to $1.3 trillion, and millions of Americans have fallen behind on student-loan payments.
“Costs have gone up considerably to the point that I think there are a number of people who maybe rightfully say, ‘I’m not in the league of Harvard and maybe not even in the league of really good state schools,’” said Doug Webber, a Temple University econimics professor. Many of those Americans are concluding that paying high tuition at less-prestigious schools isn’t worth it.
College is clearly still a good thing, just not at current prices. Put another way, higher ed has been in a bubble fueled by government loans and deceptive marketing, and now that bubble is bursting. The old model of extended adolescence in which mom/dad/Uncle Sam cover five or more years of partying and sampling various majors is now beyond the means of more than half the population.
And the trend is just getting started, as soaring debts make it harder for future governments to subsidize higher ed and automation makes an ever-longer list of degrees pointless.
The result: The gap between educational haves and have-nots will continue to widen, as formerly middle-class kids find themselves with – at best – working class prospects. And the political and financial instability that flow from inequality will define the coming decade.