Is college still the ticket to the good life?

Only 38 percent of recent college grads "strongly agree" their undergraduate degree was worth the cost, according to a Purdue-Gallup poll. Supportive student-teacher relationships are key to alum satisfaction. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Students celebrate during their commencement ceremony at New York University. As tuition rates soar, more and more students around the country are questioning the value of their college degree.

Is college the best four years of your life? Google doesn’t seem to think so. Plug the question in, and everyone from Psychology Today to Cosmopolitan will offer their two cents on why those storied years are overhyped. The best, they say, is yet to come.

But if you're currently enrolled, you might as well enjoy it now. Later on, only 50 percent will "strongly agree," and another 27 percent "agree," that college was worth it, according to a Purdue-Gallup survey released Tuesday, for a total of 77 percent. 

Although 77 may sound satisfactory – a C grade, if you will – the most recent batch of alums' responses are even more skeptical, possibly signaling a worrying trend in higher education: among those who graduated in the past ten years, just 38 percent gave their college's value the top rating. (The published report does not include how many young graduates merely agreed, or disagreed.)

The two-year, 60,000-person poll, conducted by Purdue University, the Lumina Foundation, and Gallup, asked grads if they agreed their education "was worth the cost." The goal: to increase accountability in higher education, an industry that some say has lost its way.

Unsurprisingly, loans play a role in students’ evaluations: 63 percent of young respondents relied on them, with a median loan of $30,000 – enough to impact major life decisions, from the choice between a job and further education, to expensive purchases like a first home. Debt is “a long-term handicap,” in the words of Purdue President Mitch Daniels.

Higher debt is more common at for-profit schools, which have quickly grown to claim over 10 percent of higher-ed students. The Purdue-Gallup study notes a sharp contrast between for-profit students and their nonprofit peers: among grads of all ages, only 26 percent of for-profit schools' alumni strongly agree their degree was worth the price tag, versus 52 and 47 percent at public and private nonprofit universities, respectively.

According to the Pew Research Center, the American students' increasing debt load is not just a matter of growing enrollment: per student loans have tripled since 1990. And the impact on recent alums is clear: among those who took on any loans, no matter what amount, the percent who strongly agreed their degree was worth the cost dropped even further, to one in three, says the Purdue-Gallup poll. 

Purdue is hardly alone in encouraging potential applicants to think long and hard about the supposed value of a college degree at a time when tuition hikes have far outpaced inflation.

President Obama has made quality higher ed a priority in his second term, pushing for low-cost community college and overhauling the government’s College Scorecard website, which rejects college rankings in favor of information like graduation rates, post-grad income, and loan debt.

But it’s also up to colleges to make sure their ‘product’ justifies the largest financial investment some people will ever make. What can conscientious schools do?

Bolster teaching and hands-on learning, perhaps. Recent alumni who reported strong relationships with professors were nearly twice as happy with their investment, regardless of loans or even employment. In-depth projects, internships, and extracurriculars also increased satisfaction by 50 percent.

The study demonstrates that “it’s not where you go to college but how you go to college that matters,” says Mr. Daniels: conventional ideas about a school’s prestige, like the ubiquitous U.S. World and News Report college rankings, did not strongly correlate with graduates’ evaluations.

[Editor's Note: The original article has been modified to clarify students' specific responses. Students responded to the statement "My education from ___ was worth the cost" with a ranking of 1-5, from "Strongly disagree" to "Strongly agree." ]

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