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A Shockingly Low Percentage of Americans Believe a College Education Is Important

For respondents in the 46th annual PDK-Gallup poll, higher education has lost its appeal.
Sep 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It looks like President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 might encounter a serious snag. According to the 46th annual PDK-Gallup poll, which surveys the nation’s views on education, only 44 percent of Americans are convinced that going to college is “very important.” That’s a marked turnaround from 2010, when a full 75 percent of Americans polled said it was very important.

The prestigious poll is conducted annually by Phi Delta Kappa International and Gallup. The results are based on a telephone (land line and cell phone) survey of more than 1,000 Americans 18 years and older taken between May 29 and June 20 this year—the tail end of college graduation season.

What’s behind higher education losing its luster over the past four years? The soaring cost of college could be a major factor. According to the poll, most parents believe that college costs are too high. In 2010, 77 percent of parents polled told PDK-Gallup that it was “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that they would be able to pay for college for their oldest child. In 2014, that number has dropped to 69 percent.

The concern over the cost of college isn’t overblown. Total student loan debt in America is now greater than credit card debt. Then there are the horror stories in the news about recent college grads ending up living back at home with Mom and Dad while struggling to find jobs.

Mix that reality with the shining stories, often of Silicon Valley tech geniuses—such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—who dropped out of school and still managed to make it big. But he still got into Harvard—something most Americans who don’t believe in college certainly can’t say.

Back in 2011, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, who graduated from Stanford, launched his “20 Under 20” project, which paid 20 students $100,000 each to drop out of elite schools and become entrepreneurs. Thiel eagerly told TechCrunch that higher education is essentially an overvalued commodity.

“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” Thiel told the website. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Thiel’s belief that it does a disservice to students to make them spend four years in school racking up thousands of dollars in debt when they might not end up with a high-paying job has become more widespread.

Enstitute, a nonprofit that was founded in 2012, is now connecting 18- to 24-year-olds with two-year apprenticeships with start-ups and small businesses. According to the organization’s website, 96 percent of Enstitute graduates have “a full-time job at the company they apprenticed at or another company in our network, or they start their own company.”

Put all that together, and it’s no wonder more Americans are wondering if plunking down the cash for a degree is worth it. But the reality is, a college degree is the best guarantee of both employment and earning ability.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' August 2014 unemployment data, 6 percent of Americans with only a high school diploma are unemployed. In comparison, only 3.6 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher are unemployed. Also, a paper published in June by Federal Reserve Bank of New York economists Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz found that since 2000, the rate of return for a bachelor’s degree has hovered between 14 percent and 15 percent. The economists wrote that the rate “easily surpass[es] the threshold for a sound investment.”

“Despite the recent struggles of college graduates, investing in a college degree may be more important than ever before, because those who fail to do so are falling further and further behind,” the researchers added.

Americans might be doubting the importance of a college degree, but despite the cost, having a diploma might be more important now than ever.