How Much Is a College Degree Really Worth?

Graduating seniors will pay back thousands of dollars in loans, but many aren’t sure their higher education experience has prepared them for the workforce.
(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)
Jun 8, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

As study after study confirms that a college education is a requirement for a middle-class lifestyle, a new survey shows that more than 40 percent of college seniors—particularly women or liberal arts majors—say higher education hasn’t prepared them for the working world.

That’s the main finding of the third annual Career Readiness Survey from learning science and publishing giant McGraw-Hill Education. The survey also found that men and women don’t feel the same level of preparedness, while science and math-based majors are far more optimistic than arts and humanities majors about their careers. Community college students’ feelings about entering the workforce are similar to those of students at four-year schools, however, even though students attending two-year schools pay far less in tuition and are less likely to graduate.

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The results of the survey underscore a disconnect between young people’s expectations of college and what higher education does for them as costs slide out of reach for average families, experts say.

Peter Cohen, McGraw-Hill Education’s group president of U.S. education, said in a statement that although college costs are soaring, “it continues to be a great investment for young people to make in their futures if they graduate.”

That view is getting harder to come by, not least because of “tension” between the U.S. economy and upward-spiraling costs in the $500 billion higher education industry, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“If the education you pay for gets you a good job, you’re not going to be upset,” said Carnevale. If a student “lays out a couple grand” for a diploma but doesn’t see a job on the horizon after graduation day, “you’re going to get antsy,” he said.

Partnering with the analytics firm Hanover Research, McGraw-Hill Education surveyed 1,360 American college students, including undergraduates, in March and April 2016. They found that only 40 percent of rising seniors believe their college experience has helped them get ready for a career, a figure that declined slightly from previous years.

The biggest anxiety gap is between students who chose careers in science, technology, engineering, or math and students who picked majors in the arts and the humanities. Seventy-three percent of students majoring in a STEM discipline are optimistic about their careers, but 61 percent of students studying liberal arts are least likely to think they are about to enter a good job market.

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While studies have shown community college students pay less for tuition and books than students at four-year schools—and tend to learn career-ready skills such as air-conditioning or computer repair—the McGraw-Hill Education survey showed their collective anxieties about being unprepared for the job market are about the same: They’re not all that optimistic.

That includes students attending colleges that charge tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and other expenses without offering them guidance on the likelihood they’ll get jobs in their chosen majors after graduation, Carnevale said.

The survey also found, however, that a solid majority of students—62 percent—would have chosen different majors if they didn’t have to pay for tuition. Students want colleges to offer them more opportunities to prepare for the workforce, including facilitating internships, providing networking opportunities with alumni, and teaching financial management.

“It should be our collective goal to maximize the experience—whether in community colleges, four-year colleges, or graduate programs—so students can feel confident they’ll have a successful career after finishing their higher education journey,” Cohen said. “While no two students’ career aspirations are the same, every college graduate deserves to enter the workforce with the confidence that their degree was worth the investment.”

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Carnevale said the statistics are symptoms of a larger problem that took root in the 1980s. As a high school diploma became less valuable in the job market, students saw college as synonymous with job training, but colleges saw their mission as helping students use knowledge to improve the quality of their lives.

As a result, higher education “spends almost no energy on transitioning out of college and into the labor force,” he noted.

That could change, he said, as the federal government pushes colleges to practice full disclosure—telling students how likely they are to find work in their field of study and how much they’re likely to earn. The Obama administration is pushing that requirement not only at for-profit colleges but at community colleges and public four-year schools.

“We’ve tried to align the jobs and the economy,” he said, “and we’re way behind.”