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The value of higher education: examining shifting perceptions including new polling from Michigan

April 06, 2023
By: Casey Nemecek

What is the value of a college degree today? While tuition costs continue to rise, opinions on the perceived value of the degrees institutions of higher education provide are falling. This sentiment, as highlighted in recent reports from New America and Gallup, demonstrates the need to re-examine the role of postsecondary education in shaping successful career pathways and the challenges individuals face while navigating an ever-evolving labor market.

For the past six years, New America has explored the attitudes toward education after high school and the connection between educational attainment and financial security through a series of annual surveys. The project, Varying Degrees, reveals a growing disillusionment among Gen Z and Millennial respondents about the return on investment a postsecondary degree provides and the connection between degree attainment and the ability to secure well-paying and stable employment opportunities.

Although overall perceptions about the value of higher education remained high between 2019 and 2022, the proportion of Gen Z and Millennial respondents who agree has steadily declined from 79% and 71% to 70% and 64% respectively. Similarly, the report also showed that the perceived availability of well-paying and stable jobs requiring only a high school diploma or GED has increased over time, with nearly two-thirds of respondents agreeing with the statement in 2022 compared with half agreeing in 2018.

Notably, in 2022, 44% of Gen Z respondents believe that a high school diploma was the minimum education level needed for adults to ensure financial security compared to 34% of the total responses believing the same. 

A 2022 study by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation provides further insight into the reality current and prospective students face today. Enrollment rates for two- and four-year degree programs have declined between 2015 and 2021, yet U.S. adults surveyed still view higher education as a critical factor in achieving a good job.

Of the respondents who never enrolled or had dropped out of enrollment, over half cited the cost of a college degree as a very important reason for not pursuing further education. For those who remained enrolled, about half pointed to financial aid and confidence in the value of their intended degree as very important reasons for sticking with their program.

The report also revealed that nearly all currently enrolled students (94%) and 80% of those considering enrolling believed that at least one additional credential beyond a high school diploma was necessary to obtain their ideal job. In contrast, only half of unenrolled respondents agreed with the sentiment, mirroring the findings of the New America study about the attitudes toward the importance of continued education after high school in achieving better employment outcomes.

This evolving perception around the relationship between continued education after high school and the ability to secure a well-paying job sparks concern among some economic development practitioners. For example, the Detroit Regional Chamber recently shared findings from a polling project showing that 35.8% of respondents said a high school diploma is the minimum level of education needed to be successful in Michigan, and only 7.8% of Michigan voters polled believed that a four-year college degree was the minimum level. Yet, according to an analysis of the state’s labor market, 80% of jobs that pay over $64,000 in Michigan require a bachelor's degree or higher.

Acknowledging the complexity of the issue, the Detroit Regional Chamber emphasized the importance of providing access to postsecondary credentials and skills training while also encouraging businesses to re-evaluate the minimum education requirements they expect of job candidates.

The state has also launched Michigan Reconnect, a $30 million investment providing free community college tuition to residents over the age of 25 who have not yet obtained a college degree. Now in its third year, the program has enrolled over 24,000 students and has graduated 2,000 with a degree or skills certificate.

Shifting perceptions about the value of higher education and its role in career readiness underscore the importance of developing and demonstrating clear pathways and training models that connect educational opportunities to career outcomes. Although the survey data in the New America report suggests a potential weakening in the “College for all” call, the availability of jobs providing economic stability and family-sustaining wages to those without a bachelor's degree has not yet followed a similar trajectory, as the example in Michigan shows. Addressing this disconnect requires sustained collaboration between secondary and postsecondary educational institutes, employers, and policymakers. 

workforce, higher ed, education