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Only 25% Of Adults Believe A College Degree Is Very Important

The value of a four-year college education has been hotly debated in recent years. As the costs of tuition and student loans continue to rise, more and more people are questioning whether getting that bachelor’s degree is truly worth the investment. The good news is that economic prospects are improving for young adults without a college degree. After decades of stagnant or declining wages, workers ages 25-34 who didn’t complete a four-year program have seen their earnings tick up over the last decade. Their overall wealth has increased too, and fewer of them are living in poverty compared to 10-15 years ago.

The Public Is Split on the Importance of a Degree

But the public seems conflicted on just how vital a college education really is. In a new Pew survey, only 25% of U.S. adults said having a bachelor’s degree is extremely or very important for getting a good paying job in today’s economy. 35% said it’s somewhat important, while 40% said it’s not too or not at all important. Almost half (49%) felt that a four-year degree is less crucial now than it was 20 years ago for securing a well-paying position. And a remarkable 71% said that the costs of a bachelor’s program are either not worth it at all (29%) or only worth it if no student loans are required (47%).

Differing Views Based on Education Level

Unsurprisingly, views diverged based on the respondents’ own level of education. Among those who did complete a four-year college program, 58% said their degree was extremely or very useful in providing skills and knowledge for a good job. Just 26% of those without a bachelor’s degree felt the same way. Still, even within the cohort of four-year graduates, only around a third (32%) felt that the costs of their education were worth taking on debt. Those with lower levels of educational attainment were even more skeptical of debt-financing a degree.
graphic of degree value statistics
Pew Research

The Partisan Divide on College’s Importance

Perspectives on the importance of a bachelor’s degree also differed sharply along partisan lines. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say: – A four-year degree is not too or not at all important for a well-paying job (50% vs 30%) – A college education is less crucial now than 20 years ago (57% vs 43%) – It’s very or extremely likely someone can get a good job without finishing a four-year program (42% vs 26%)

Signs of Improvement for Those Without Degrees

So there’s plenty of public doubt about the current value and necessity of a traditional four-year college path. But at the same time, economic data shows some encouraging signs for young adults who don’t complete bachelor’s degrees. For young men ages 25-34 without a four-year degree, trends like labor force participation, full-time employment, earnings growth, and poverty rates have all moved in a positive direction over the last 10 years after long periods of decline or stagnation. The economic picture has also brightened for young women in this demographic over the past decade. Their earnings have risen, poverty levels have fallen, and more of them are working full-time hours compared to 10-15 years ago.

The Degree Earnings Gap Persists

Despite these improvements, a significant earnings gap remains between those with and without a bachelor’s degree. College graduates in the 25-34 age range continue to out-earn their peers with less education. But there are many careers in the trades that can easily outpace college grad salaries. While workers will not make these salaries right away, after a few years of training and proof of value – the following careers can take you to six-figures.
  • Pipe Fitter
  • Tractor Trailer Driver
  • Journeyman Lineman
  • Commercial Pilot
  • Oilfield Worker
  • Construction Manager
These are just a few of the highest paying trade jobs out there. Many of these can also be achieved with on the job training leaving you with no school debt. So while the prospects may be looking better for young adults forgoing college, the financial advantages of completing a four-year program still seem to exist. At least for now. The debate over the value and return-on-investment of a college education will likely rage on. But the latest data shows an increasingly complex picture – one where public skepticism contrasts with some economic gains for those without degrees, even as the earnings premium for graduates persists. As policymakers, families, and students weigh the pros and cons, it’s clear there are no simple answers when it comes to the worth of a bachelor’s degree in today’s economy. The conversation around this issue is sure to continue evolving. Related articles:

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