Administration

Just Half of Graduates Strongly Agree Their College Education Was Worth the Cost

September 29, 2015

Only half of 30,000 college alumni polled for the Gallup-Purdue Index strongly agreed that their higher education was worth the cost, according to the results of the second annual national survey, being published on Tuesday.

Among recent graduates, the proportion who were unequivocally positive was even lower: only 38 percent of those graduating from 2006 through 2015.

The overall results did not differ widely depending on the kind of institution attended — except when it came to alumni of for-profit colleges. Only 26 percent of those alumni strongly agreed that their postsecondary education was worth the cost. And 13 percent strongly disagreed that it was worth it, a proportion that was notably higher than the national average of 4 percent.

Perhaps not surprisingly, younger alumni carrying student-loan debt were more negative than those without debt. Among those with debt, only one in three strongly agreed that their college education was worth the cost.

The 2015 findings highlight a continuing challenge for colleges, said Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director for education and work-force development. "If we don’t figure out how to improve that value proposition," he said in an interview, "the great tidal wave of demand for higher education in the U.S. could easily come crashing down on us."

Role of Student-Loan Debt

For the 2015 poll, Gallup interviewed a nationally representative sample of more than 30,000 college alumni.

Debt concerns are affecting more than alumni’s attitudes about their undergraduate experience. Nearly half of recent graduates with student-loan debt said they had delayed postgraduate education because of it. Their levels of debt mattered too: 40 percent of those with student debt below $25,000 said they had delayed going back to school, but for those with debt in excess of that amount, the proportion was 56 percent.

Student debt also had other effects. Of recent alumni with more than $25,000 in student debt, 43 percent said it had caused them to delay buying a home, 40 percent said it had delayed their purchase of a car, 27 percent said it had delayed their moving out of their parents’ home, 25 percent said it had delayed their starting their own business, 19 percent said it had delayed their getting married, and 26 percent said it had delayed their having children.

The 2015 poll builds on the findings of last year’s survey, which sought to identify educational practices that correlate with graduates’ later satisfaction with their careers and overall level of well-being. The new poll found that alumni were more likely to believe their education was worth the cost if they had taken part in experiences like an internship relevant to their studies or a long-term project.

But another kind of experience — a research project with a professor — was irrelevant to their opinion about the worth of their college education. That means, in some cases, the research opportunities may be perfunctory and "not the highest quality of experience that they should be," said Mr. Busteed.

College-Specific Surveys

Along with its national poll, Gallup has begun selling individual polling services to colleges. At a price of about $30,000 for a very basic survey to around $200,000 for a fuller range of services, the individualized surveys allow colleges to compare results from their own alumni and students to the national sample.

Next to the costs of alumni surveys, which can run about $20,000 to $30,000, according to one consultant, or to the less-expensive individualized reports from groups like the National Survey of Student Engagement, the price tag for the Gallup product can be hard for some colleges to swallow.

A year and half ago, Gallup said that about 50 colleges had expressed interest.

On Monday, Mr. Busteed said about 40 colleges had contracted for the individual surveys. Results for several of those institutions have already been published online, including Arizona State University, Purdue University, the Universities of New Hampshire and Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Western Governors University.

Under Gallup rules, colleges may keep those reports private, but if they choose to make any of the information public, they must publish the report in its entirety. That ensures they don’t cherry-pick which results to publicize.

For some institutions that may be an attraction or a concern. At New Hampshire, one of the most recent to publish a report, it was "a little bit of both," said Mark W. Huddleston, the president. "You can’t game it."

New Hampshire paid for the high-end level of services, he said, and believes it was worth it. Colleges have been "somewhat at loose ends" when it comes to describing their value, he said, and the survey helps to quantify that "what we do makes a difference." He said he also planned to use the findings to help guide future projects that would more intentionally involve alumni in mentoring programs for students.

Gallup’s business got an additional boost in July, when the Indiana Commission for Higher Education agreed to subsidize the cost for public and private colleges in the state to take part in the survey. Purdue and the Lumina Foundation, both of which played a role in creating the Gallup-Purdue Index, are based in Indiana.

For the commission, Gallup offered a special price and the loan-guarantee company USA Funds also provided a sizable subsidy. A spokeswoman for the commission said six institutions would take part under that plan: Ball State University, Indiana University (the spokeswoman was unable to immediately say whether it was the Bloomington flagship or a regional campus), Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, the Ivy Tech Community College System, Purdue University Northwest (beginning after the merger of the Purdue Calumet and Purdue Northwest campuses), and Western Governors University-Indiana.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.

Clarification (9/29/2015, 1:59 p.m.): The original headline on this article has been changed to better reflect the specific language of the survey on alumni attitudes toward their college education.