May 15, 2011

Is College Worth It?

Executive Summary

This report is based on findings from a pair of Pew Research Center surveys conducted this spring. One is a telephone survey taken among a nationally representative sample of 2,142 adults ages 18 and older. The other is an online survey, done in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education, among the presidents of 1,055 two-year and four-year private, public, and for-profit colleges and universities. (See a description of our survey methodology.)

Here is a summary of key findings:

Survey of the General Public

Survey of Presidents


Explore the attitudes of the public and of college presidents about the value, cost, quality, mission and payoff of higher education.

About the Surveys

This report is largely based on findings from two Pew Research Center surveys conducted in the spring of 2011.

The general public survey (GP) is based on telephone interviews conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,142 adults ages 18 and older living in the continental United States, including an oversample of 336 adults ages 18-34. A total of 1,052 interviews were completed with respondents contacted by landline telephone and 1,090 with those contacted on their cellular phone. The data are weighted to produce a final sample that is representative of the general population of adults in the continental United States. Survey interviews were conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, in English and Spanish. For more details, see Appendix 1.

The college presidents survey (P) is based on a web survey conducted with 1,055 college and university presidents in the U.S. The survey was designed by the Pew Research Center in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Overall, 1,022 interviews were completed online and 33 interviews were completed by phone (for the presidents who requested being interviewed by phone). The college and university presidents surveyed are from four major sectors: 1) private four-year colleges and universities; 2) public four-year colleges and universities; 3) two-year public and private colleges; 4) four-year and two-year for-profit colleges and universities. The data were weighted to correct for disproportionate non-response that might bias sample estimates. The weighting accounts for both the institution type and geographic distribution of the colleges and universities eligible to take part in the survey. Survey interviews were conducted in English under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. For more details, see Appendix 1.

Notes on Terminology

Unless otherwise noted, “college graduates” refers to those who graduated from a four-year college and hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

In referring to institutions of higher education, the terms “school,” “institution,” “college” and “university” are used interchangeably, except that “university” does not apply to two-year institutions.

“Private college” refers to private (as opposed to public) not-for-profit (NFP) colleges and universities. This term is not intended to apply to private, for-profit colleges.

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