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College Degrees: Important but too expensive

From the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

April 21, 2015

For Those Without One, College Degrees Are Seen as Important but Too Expensive

By Casey Fabris


In the eyes of Americans without college degrees, higher education seems necessary but too expensive.

That is one of the main takeaways in a report released on Monday by the American Enterprise Institute, “High Costs, Uncertain Benefits: What Do Americans Without a College Degree Think About Postsecondary Education?”

The report was based on a survey of more than 1,500 people who lack college degrees about their perception of a college education. It echoed some of the findings of a public-opinion survey, released last week, of broader views of higher education.

People without a college degree recognize its importance, according to the new survey, with 84 percent of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing with the idea that some form of postsecondary education was needed to get a good job. But survey participants didn’t necessarily think they needed a college credential themselves, with 43 percent indicating they were satisfied with their level of education.

Only 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the idea that a college education was worth the cost. And the high cost of college was the top reason given for why some people do not enroll in college.

Families “feel trapped between something that’s necessary for their kids or for them, that is simultaneously way too expensive often for them to afford,” said Andrew P. Kelly, author of the report and director of the institute’s Center on Higher Education Reform, at an event on Monday to roll out the study’s findings.

Those who took the survey did not have a good understanding of how much college costs, the difference between a college’s sticker price and net price, or how higher education could affect their earnings. When asked to estimate the cost of tuition and fees at a community college nearby, about 51 percent overestimated the cost, and about 28 percent were not able to make an estimate.

Prospective students need better information on options, affordability, and return on investment, argued panelists at the event. But having and disseminating that information isn’t simple, especially if potential consumers aren’t looking for it. “If people aren’t in the market, why would they even know any of this?” asked Mark S. Schneider, a visiting scholar at the institute and vice president of the American Institutes for Research.

Mr. Schneider said one of the most important lessons of Mr. Kelly’s work was its indication that the “national addiction to the bachelor’s degree” must be stopped. “It is not the only postsecondary credential that matters, it is not the only postsecondary credential that has economic payoff,” Mr. Schneider said. “It’s too long, it’s too expensive, but it’s what most people think about when we say ‘postsecondary credential.’”

There are other alternatives, he said, such as associate degrees or certificates, that could make a graduate more money than the average bachelor’s-degree recipient earns.