How Many Americans Regard College As Important?

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Image credit: ImageFlow/
  • The number of Americans who viewed college as important fell drastically from 70% in 2013 to 51% on 2019.
  • Part of the reason people are changing their minds is the issue of rising student debt, a result of rapidly increasing tuition rates at both private and public schools.
  • The average student who takes out loans for education graduates with $30,000 worth of debt, but college graduates still earn 80% more than those with only a high school diploma.

Graduating college or university is a milestone celebrated by many people. Not only can a higher education broaden your mind and enrich your view on life, it can also help line your pockets. Research shows that those who graduate from college in the US earn about 80% more than those who only have a highschool diploma. One would think this would present a great reason for many more people to pursue a college education, but this has not been the case in recent times. According to a 2019 Gallup poll that surveyed more than 2000 people in the US, only slightly more than half of Americans consider going to college as very important. Astoundingly, this is down from 70% of Americans who felt so in 2013. 

Who feels college is important in the country, who does not, and why have things changed? Here is a look. 

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Those Who Think College is Important (and Those Who Do Not)

In general, it seems those who have to work harder to be paid the same wage as white men in the US still see a college degree as important. Women and minorities viewed college as more important than men and whites in general, in the poll. About 65% of Black and Hispanic adults said college was very important, compared with just 44% of their white counterparts. More Democrats (62%) than Republicans (41%) said the same, as well as 50% of independents. 

Whites, Republicans, and people aged 18 to 29 were the least likely to say getting a college education is an important thing to do in life.   

Why Viewpoints Have Changed

In 2013, 74% of Americans polled between the ages of 18 and 29 said they felt college was “very important” but just 41% in this same group said the same in 2019. Experts say that a large part of this change in attitude is a result of the rising cost of higher education. In 1979, it cost someone the modern equivalent of $17,680 per year to attend a private college in the US. In 2019, this dollar amount rose to about $48,510 per year. A public college cost about $8,250 per year in 1979 and in 2019, about $21,370 per year. The cost of a private education has risen in the last 40 years by about 25% and a public education by almost 30%. According to Pew Research Center however, after being adjusted for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has the same purchasing power as it did in 1978. 

Experts say these discrepancies have left many young people and their families wondering whether a college education is really worth the cost. 

According to Stepahie Marken, executive director of education research at Gallup, this marks the first time in the history of Gallup polls that 18 to 29 year-olds are more negative when measuring this topic, which is cause for concern.  

Too Much Debt

The student debt crisis is a real phenomenon and student-loan debt in the US is said to now be at an all-time high. The average student in the US who took out loans is now graduating owing $29,800. Most astonishingly, according to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau data, over 3 million senior citizens in the US are still paying off their student loan debt. If your grandma is still paying for the education she earned in her 20s, in her 60s, it is easy to see how you may feel her efforts were in vain. 

Experts say that up to  40% of those who borrowed money to attend school may default on their loan by 2023. 

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What It Means For The Future

All things aside, analysts on many fronts agree that having college graduates is still the key to a successful future for the US. The country will not be able to continue to compete well on a global scale without a large portion of its citizens obtaining a higher education. Economists and those in charge of national security see having college graduates in certain fields as not only important to the nation’s economy, but also key to keeping the nation secure. The US needs more people to study computer science and artificial intelligence, for example.  It is estimated that AI will add 16%, or about $13 trillion to global economic output by 2030. Many see this as a sure sign that it will be integral to maintaining national security. 

Why aren’t more people being encouraged to chase a higher education? Officials are trying. In 2009, the Obama administration set out goals to have 60% of 25 to 34 year-olds obtain college degrees or certificates in the US by 2020. The country is behind in its quest to meet this vision. It is said that at the current rate, the US will not see this dream come to fruition until 2056 at the very earliest. It is possible, however.

The Importance Of Getting A Higher Education

As stated above, a higher education can help the country, as well as your own personal finances, as long as you do not go into massive debt acquiring it. If done right, getting a college degree is still the best investment you can make, said Greg McBride, who is chief financial analyst at Bankrate, to CNBC Make It. College grads can make about $1 million more than those without a college degree, in their lifetime. Going into $30, 000 of debt to do this is obviously a wise move. 

There are additional benefits besides monetary gains that go along with a college degree, too. People who engage in higher education have a longer life expectancy. They are able to maintain healthier lifestyles, are less likely to be disabled, have fewer functional limitations, and are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases. 

Overall, getting a college education is a benefit in today’s America. Authorities will have to try harder to reach those aged 25 to 34 with this message, however, if they are to meet the goal of having a higher percentage of people graduate college before 2056. 


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