The State of American Jobs
5. The value of a college education
An extensive body of research has argued that obtaining a college diploma is a good deal for graduates on almost any measure – from higher earnings to lower unemployment rates. By the same token, those without a college degree can find their upward mobility in the job market limited by a lack of educational credentials: This survey finds that one-third of Americans who lack a four-year college degree report that they have declined to apply for a job they felt they were qualified for, because that job required a bachelor’s degree.
But despite the potential benefits and opportunities available to college graduates – and the potential challenges faced by those who lack a college diploma – Americans have somewhat mixed attitudes about the effectiveness of traditional four-year colleges and other higher education institutions. On a personal level, many college graduates describe their own educational experience as having a generally positive impact on their personal and professional development. Roughly six-in-ten (62%) college graduates with two- or four-year degrees think their degree was very useful for helping them grow personally and intellectually, while roughly half think it was very useful for opening up job opportunities (53%) or for providing them with useful job-related skills and knowledge (49%).
Yet even as many college graduates view their own educational experience in positive terms, the public as a whole – including a substantial share of college graduates – expresses reservations about the extent to which various higher education institutions prepare students for the workforce more generally. Just 16% of Americans think that a four-year degree prepares students very well for a well-paying job in today’s economy, and 51% say this type of degree prepares students “somewhat well” for the workplace. Some 12% think that a two-year associate degree prepares students very well (46% say somewhat well), and 26% feel that certification programs in a professional, technical, or vocational field prepare students very well (52% say somewhat well).
The purpose of college: Americans view workforce-relevant skills and knowledge as more important than personal and intellectual growth
Americans’ views of what a college education should be tend to prioritize specific, workplace-related skills and knowledge rather than general intellectual development and personal growth. Half of Americans say that the main purpose of college should be to teach specific skills and knowledge that can be used in the workplace, while 35% think its main purpose should be to help students grow and develop personally and intellectually and 13% volunteer that these objectives are equally important. The public’s views on this issue have shifted slightly in favor of skills development since the last time Pew Research Center asked this question in 2011. At that point, 47% said main purpose of college should be to teach specific skills and knowledge and 39% said it should be to promote personal and intellectual growth.
Americans who have engaged in additional schooling beyond a bachelor’s degree are especially likely to say that the main purpose of college should be personal and intellectual growth, rather than the acquisition of specific skills and knowledge. Some 47% of those with a postgraduate or professional degree think the main purpose of college should be personal and intellectual growth, while 35% think it should be teaching workplace-relevant skills.
In contrast, those with limited college experience (or no college experience at all) are more likely to prioritize the development of specific skills over general intellectual improvement. For instance, 56% of Americans with a high school diploma or less say college should be primarily a place to develop specific work-oriented knowledge and skills, while just 31% see it primarily as a place for personal and intellectual growth.
There is also a partisan element to these views, with Republicans and Democrats expressing highly differing opinions on the purpose of college. Democrats (including Democratic-leaning independents) are about evenly split on which of these objectives is more important: 42% say colleges should prioritize personal and intellectual growth, while 43% say they should prioritize the development of workforce-relevant skills. But among Republicans and Republican leaners, 58% say that the main purpose of college should be teach specific skills – while just 28% feel that the main purpose should be general personal and intellectual growth.
These partisan differences hold true even after accounting for differences in educational attainment. Democrats and Democratic leaners with high levels of educational attainment are more likely to prioritize personal and intellectual growth relative to Democrats and Democratic leaners with lower levels of educational attainment.
But Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents at all educational levels are more likely than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with similar levels of education to believe that personal and intellectual growth should be the main purpose of college.
Along with Democrats and those who have progressed beyond a bachelor’s degree, younger adults (those ages 18 to 29) are more likely than older adults to feel that personal and intellectual growth should be the primary purpose of college: some 43% of 18- to 29-year olds feel this way, compared with roughly one-third of those in older age groups.
In addition, Americans who themselves work in the education field tend to place a greater emphasis on personal and intellectual growth as the primary purpose of college: 46% believe that this should be the main purpose of a college degree, while 35% believe that college should mainly be a place to develop specific skills and knowledge (19% of those who work in the education industry consider them equally important).
Most college graduates regard their college experience as very useful for intellectual growth; views are more mixed when it comes to job opportunities and marketable skills
When asked to assess certain aspects of their own educational experience, about six-in-ten (62%) college graduates (including those who graduated from a two-year degree program) feel that their time in college was very useful in helping them grow personally and intellectually. About half say their college experience was very useful in helping them access job opportunities (53%) or in helping them develop skills and knowledge they could use in the workplace (49%).
The further people have progressed in their college career, the more likely they are to consider their experience very useful. Those with a postgraduate or professional degree are more likely to say that their college education was very useful in each of these respects compared with four-year degree holders, who are in turn more likely than those with a two-year associate degree to say that their education was very useful across each of these measures. For example, while two-thirds of those with a postgraduate or professional degree say their college education was very useful in opening doors to job opportunities, 56% of those with a four-year degree, and an even smaller share (40%) among those with a two-year degree, say the same. And while 57% of those with more than a bachelor’s degree say college was very useful in helping them develop marketable skills, about half or a smaller share among those with a four- or two-year degree hold this view (49% and 43%, respectively).
When it comes to helping them grow professionally and intellectually, majorities of those with a postgraduate or professional degree (77%) and those with a bachelor’s degree (64%) say college was very useful, compared with 46% of those with a two-year college degree.
Americans have mixed views about the extent to which college prepares students for a well-paying job in today’s economy
When asked a broader set of questions about the impact of college more generally, the public expresses somewhat mixed views about the extent to which a college education prepares students for success in the workforce.
Two-thirds of Americans (67%) think that a traditional four-year degree prepares students for a well-paying job in today’s economy at least somewhat well, but just 16% think it prepares them very well, and 29% think it does not prepare them well. A somewhat smaller share of Americans (58%) think that a two-year community college degree prepares students for a well-paying job either very (12%) or somewhat (46%) well, while 38% think that these programs do not prepare students well.
Interestingly, Americans with a four-year college degree are generally no more positive – or negative – than those with less education about the relationship between a four-year degree and a well-paying job: 13% of those with a bachelor’s degree or more education say a four-year degree prepares people very well, as do 11% of those with a two-year associate degree, 12% of those with some college experience but no degree, and 17% of those with a high school diploma. Among those who did not complete high school, however, 40% believe that a four-year college degree does a very good job of preparing people for a well-paying job.
When it comes to assessments of a two-year college degree, about one-in-six (16%) Americans who hold this type of degree say it prepares workers very well for a well-paying job. This is considerably larger than the share of those with at least a bachelor’s degree (7%) who say a two-year degree prepares people very well, but not necessarily more positive than the views of those with less education.
Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to say four- and two-year degrees prepare people very well for a job in today’s economy. For example, about three-in-ten (29%) Hispanics and about a quarter (24%) of blacks say this about a four-year degree, compared with 12% of whites. And while about one-in-five blacks and Hispanics (18% each) say a two-year associate degree prepares people very well, one-in-ten whites share this view.
These findings are consistent with previous Pew Research Center surveys that found that black and Latino parents view college as more essential for their children’s success than do white parents.
A substantially larger share of the public has positive attitudes towards certification programs in a professional, technical or vocational field in the context of workforce development. Some 78% of Americans think that these programs prepare students well for a job in today’s economy, including 26% who think they prepare students very well. Just roughly one-in-five (19%) think they do not prepare students well. It is important to note, however, that respondents were not asked about the effectiveness of certification programs instead of a college education.
Positive assessments of certificate programs as a way to prepare workers for jobs in today’s economy are particularly widespread among those who did not complete high school; 44% in this group say these types of programs prepare people very well, compared with about a quarter (27%) of those with a high school diploma and a similar share of those with some college, but no degree (22%), a two-year degree (28%), or a four-year degree or more education (22%). Certificate programs are also particularly well-regarded among Hispanics, 39% of whom say they prepare people very well for a good job in today’s economy. About a quarter of blacks (25%) and whites (23%) say the same.
One-third of Americans without a bachelor’s degree have elected to not apply for a job they felt they were qualified for because it required a four-year degree
Recent research has argued that there is a “credentials gap” in today’s workforce, as employers increasingly require a bachelor’s degree for positions that did not demand this level of schooling in the past. And the survey finds that 33% of Americans who do not have a four-year college degree report that they have declined to apply for a job they felt they were qualified for, because it required a bachelor’s degree.
Americans who have engaged in some type of formal education beyond high school (short of obtaining a bachelor’s degree) are particularly likely to believe they’ve been adversely affected by credentialing requirements as they work their way up the educational ladder. Some 25% of Americans with a high school diploma or less and no additional schooling beyond that have not applied for a job because of a bachelor’s degree requirement. But that figure rises to 34% among those with a high school diploma plus additional vocational schooling, to 38% among those with some college experience but no degree, and to 44% among those with a two-year associate degree. Put somewhat differently, as people receive additional formal education without actually obtaining a bachelor’s degree, they may develop relevant skills without the on-paper credentials to match.
In addition, adults younger than 50 are much more likely than older adults to have refrained from applying to a job they felt they were qualified for because they didn’t meet the formal educational requirements. About four-in-ten non-college graduates ages 18 to 29 (41%) and ages 30 to 49 (44%) say this has happened, compared with 31% of those ages 50 to 64 and just 12% of those 65 and older.