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Is College Worth it? What Graduates Say

Sarah Bohn August 2, 2017

As college registration deadlines approach, thousands of Californians are making important decisions to invest in their education and long-term career prospects. The vast majority of parents (85%) hope their child earns at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the PPIC Statewide Survey. But how do graduates see it? And how well-informed are their decisions?

The good news is that most people who earn degrees believe their investment was worth it. According to national survey data, 71% of those who earned an associate degree and 73% of those with a bachelor’s degree agree their education was worth the cost. Going beyond the economic value, a large share also find engagement in the work they do. In fact, a sizeable share of associate- and bachelor’s-degree holders report deep interest in their work (41% and 38%, respectively) or say that they have the ideal job (29% and 26%, respectively).

Although having an “ideal job” may be a very high bar to achieve, these results suggest that a majority of degree earners are not terribly satisfied or engaged with their work. Indeed, in a wider-ranging national survey conducted recently, a majority of college graduates indicate that they would change their degree, their college, or their major if they could do it again. Among associate-degree holders, 23% would seek a different degree—more than double the share of bachelor’s-degree holders who say the same. But graduates with bachelor’s degrees are not entirely satisfied with their choices either: 40% would study a different major (compared to 36% among associate-degree holders). And the survey finds curiously similar responses regardless of a person’s income level. Though higher-income Americans are slightly less likely to regret their college choices, a large fraction of them (35–45% for those with income over $100,000) would still make a different choice.

These results confirm that while college pays off, there is room to improve how well-informed prospective students are about their colleges, majors, and degrees. On this blog, we’ve written about the economic value of college credentials and how it varies across fields of study. We’ve also highlighted the need for data to inform student choices, given the sizeable financial commitment entailed.

Among the state’s public colleges and universities, California’s community colleges are ahead of the curve in providing information online about institutional performance, future salary, and more. Other institutions should follow suit. However, the survey results above suggest it is perhaps equally important to design courses and programs that ensure students can efficiently and effectively identify the degrees and majors best suited to them. Indeed, this is one of the tenets of the guided pathways movement taking place at community colleges across the country and in California. To inform and improve the college decisions of Californians, it is critical that these practices expand beyond community colleges, so that K–12 schools and four-year universities are also working to ensure students have comprehensive information when choosing their pathway into a career.

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