published : 2023-09-09

Americans 'losing faith' in college as benefits from some degrees become 'indistinguishable from zero': Report

Recent poll found nearly half of Americans don't want to send children to four-year college

An image of a diverse group of students on a college campus, symbolizing the concept of losing faith in college.

A decade or so ago, Americans were feeling pretty positive about higher education. But that changed in just 10 years, with now almost half of American parents saying they’d prefer that their children not enroll in a four-year college, citing a 2021 survey.

Economic researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis established a 'wealth premium' to determine the economic benefits of college weighed against debt and total assets. Their results were striking.

Among families whose head is of any race or ethnicity born in the 1980s and holding a postgraduate degree, the wealth premium is indistinguishable from zero, the economic researchers concluded. 'Our results suggest that college and postgraduate education may be failing some recent graduates as a financial investment.'

A close-up shot of a college degree certificate with the words 'Is it worth it?' written across it, taken with a Nikon D850.

Black college graduates born after 1980 were experiencing almost no wealth premium at all, explaining that Latino families gained similarly little actual wealth from a college education. White college graduates from the 1980s had only a bit more wealth than White high school graduates born in the same decade, according to the report.

These results come amid a massive drop in college enrollment across the United States.

In the fall of 2010, there were more than 18 million undergraduates enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States. That figure has been falling ever since, dipping below 15.5 million undergrads in 2021. As recently as 2016, 70 percent of high school graduates were still going straight to college; now the figure is 62 percent.

A photo of a Republican and a Democrat engaged in a discussion about the value of higher education, captured with a Canon EOS R5.

Politicized college campuses have also turned off some Republicans to higher education. In a 2023 Gallup poll, only 19 percent of Republicans said they had a lot of confidence in higher education, down from 56 percent in 2015. The No. 1 reason Republicans gave for their declining faith in higher ed was that colleges had become 'too liberal/political.'

Tough also compared views on college between Republicans and Democrats. In an ongoing Pew survey, the portion of Republicans (and those who lean Republican) saying colleges and universities had a negative effect on the country rose to 58 percent from 37 percent in just two years, between 2015 and 2017, while the responses of Democrats (and those who lean Democrat) held steady.

A 2021 survey found that nearly half of American parents would prefer their children not attend a four-year college.