• Dr. Relax

The Value of a Four-Year College Degree


In a recent Gallup survey (April 2021), studies show that many families are reconsidering the value of a traditional four-year college education. Many parents are thinking about hands-on experiences for their children instead, such as vocational programs, joining the military, or pursuing entrepreneurship. When finances are not an issue, the opinion stands: 46% of parents want alternatives to four-year college.


The study shows a decade-long decline in interest in college among American parents. In fact, just last year, a 2019 Gallup poll shows that only 51% of Americans believed that a college education was “very important.” As recently as 2013, 70% of Americans believed the same.


What has happened to the perceived value of a four-year education?

Within the survey, parents were asked if given an ideal situation, meaning no obstacles or limitations, what they would want their children to do immediately after high school. 54% of parents responded four-year college. 22% responded other pathways, such as work, military, volunteer, or joining a family business. 16% responded non-college training programs and apprenticeships.


There are six main takeaways from this study.


#1 – Black parents were more likely to prefer that their child pursues four-year college. In fact, 67% of Black parents attested to this, which was 16% higher than white parents and 11% higher than Hispanic parents.


#2 – The parents’ political party was a strong predictor of college preference. 70% of Democrats stated that they would prefer their child to pursue four-year college, compared to 48% of Independents and 46% of Republicans, partly explained by a 2017 Gallup survey that found many Republicans were critical of colleges for “pushing a liberal agenda.”


#3 – Parents who were less likely to prefer four-year college were much more likely to prefer a skills-training program or apprenticeship such as plumbing or automotive repair. Often, these parents stated that they believe “experiential pathways” provide better career preparation than sitting in classrooms at college.


#4 – About 33% of parents who attended college DO NOT want their children to do the same. In addition, Republican college graduates were less likely than Democrat college graduates to want their children to also attend college.


#5 – Only 8% of parents preferred community college education, despite its affordability. In fact, they would rather their children attend skills-training programs or apprenticeships. Most parents did not believe that a two-year college program could deliver the same level of quality education that they associated with skills-training programs or apprenticeships.


#6 – Household income was NOT a strong predictor of whether parents want their children to attend college. Location had a stronger correlation: parents living in cities and suburbs were much more likely to want their children to attend four-year colleges than parents living in towns or rural areas.


Naturally, we begin to wonder about the current value of a bachelor’s degree. If more and more students are attending and graduating from college, is the value of a bachelor’s degree being heavily diluted, in essence? The answer depends on where you live and what you do.


Research from Georgetown University shows that the national mean earnings for bachelor’s degree holders is $92,608, much higher than the $50,051 average for high school graduates, an increase of 85%.


However, this increase drops as low as 15% in North Dakota and climbs as high as 103% in New York, leading to their conclusion that college degrees are better investments in big cities. Otherwise, perhaps an associate’s degree or simply a high school diploma is the better financial investment and decision.

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