Reframing the college debt conversation: Is college worth it?

October 20, 2015
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Financial Aid and FAFSA
Glass jar of change labelled "college fund" sitting on a kitchen countertop.

Looking for a way to rile up higher education faculty and staff in one sentence? Try this: “Graduates with debt don’t think college was worth it.”

That was the lead on an NPR article two weeks ago. The article cites a new survey from Gallup in collaboration with Purdue University which asked 30,000 recent graduates about quality of life and work post-graduation. The goal of the survey this year was to develop a comparative measure of college performance based on what matters most to students, who Gallup sees as the “authoritative source on the topic.”

Is college worth it?

The report found that students who are able to meaningfully engage with their education, whether through experiential learning, internships, extracurriculars, long term projects or faculty relationships, had a higher rate of satisfaction with their degree. This finding is supported by previous work in higher education, and could be used to bolster faculty efforts to increase graduation rates through student centered improvements to programming. The part of the report that has gotten the most attention however, was a new set of questions asking if college was worth the cost. Although half of all alumni surveyed strongly agreed, that number drops to 38% for those who received degrees after 2006 and down to 18% for those with more than $50,000 in debt.

The Gallup/Purdue survey report, and the NPR article that followed it, emphasized that a In the context of larger debates about the rising costs of college in the U.S., such perceptions can be damning.

 It is therefore important to note that while only 18% of students with more than $50,000 in student loans ‘Strongly Agree’ that their education was worth the cost, the percentage jumps to 40% if respondents who answered ‘Agree’ are also included. Respondents answering ‘Disagree’ or ‘Strongly Disagree’ to that same question add up to 36%. In addition, the median debt burden reported by this survey was $30,000. Of respondents grouped in that category, with $25,001 to $50,000 in debt, 58% agreed or strongly agreed that their experience was worth the cost, while only 19% disagreed or strongly disagreed.  Considering the rest of this data makes the survey report much less alarming.

Account for all the factors

In response to the fervor the article created in the higher education community, AACRAO reached out to student debt specialist and AACRAO Annual Meeting presenter, Jonathan Jacobs.  Jacobs is the Director of Enrollment Management Research at the University of Oregon.

While student and graduate opinions are an important component in understanding the condition of higher education, they should be considered in addition to the other data driven factors, Jacobs cautions. Those factors include graduation rates, average debt at graduation and default rates by institution. These metrics demonstrate if and to what level of debt students completed their program; student opinions measure how they felt about that experience. According to Jacobs, determination of college value should come from a combination of all of those points.

To address the legitimate concerns about debt burden raised by the Gallup/Purdue poll,  Jacobs points to census data. By age 30, the majority of college graduates, regardless of debt level, have already earned more wages in their lifetime than their non-college educated peers, according to 2010 data.  This is despite a four year delay in earnings while attending college."  For a full explanation of the numbers supporting the claim that college is a valuable investment for those who graduate, see the full presentation from Jacobs here.

Economic data and majority student opinion support college as a valuable investment. It is important however, according to Jacobs, to communicate the value of a degree without ignoring the issues of student debt. One way to do that would be to couch conversations about value with discussion of financial support options. Jacobs emphasizes the importance of increasing student/family access to financial counseling and university responsibility for ensuring its accuracy and delivery. Such efforts can minimize the number of students who make unrealistic choices for themselves/their families about how much debt to accrue as well as the number of students who drop-out before completion for financial reasons.

Jacobs suggests this should be combined with more grant-based programs that partner with Pell funding because additional resources have been shown to be critical to the access and attainment of low income students. To date, the increased borrowing of students can be tied to divestment from higher education on the part of states. That divestment is unlikely to reverse itself any time soon, leaving the burden to individual institutions to assist students in making college financially possible.

Call for quality

Ultimately, the Gallup/Purdue poll can serve as another call for quality, student-centered service, and financial responsibility in higher education. Jacobs believes that “every institution should be held responsible for graduation rates, debt burden and default rates.” Any metric that seeks to inform students and encourage good institutional stewardship will need to be accurate and take into account the differences between institution types. Determining the vehicle for such assessment is crucial to continuing to demonstrate the value and feasibility of a college degree to the American public.

Given the political nature of all things higher education and finance currently however, the current College Scorecard, private rankings, and nonprofit polling is likely all the higher education community will be able to use for national comparisons in the near future. It is important when using those, that researchers and reporters are accurate and honest about how numbers compare and represent larger trends, rather than relying on anecdotal outliers.

To go deeper into conversations about how financial aid affects student choice and enrollment, consider joining AACRAO's SEM Conference, Nov. 1-4. For example, the session "Using Qualitative Research to Better Understand the Enrollment Experience of Students" will review the utility of qualitative phenomenological studies to help inform SEM professionals how students learn and make meaning of college costs and financial aid. This session, by John Lehman from Michigan Technological University, will offer concrete recommendations to those working in the college access fields to best meet the needs of low-income students trying to navigate the college access process.