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Poll: Most Americans Don't Think a College Degree Is Worth the Cost

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With tuition rates increasing and college attendance rates declining, a new poll from The Wall Street Journal and the National Opinion Research Center suggests that Americans’ confidence in the value of a college degree is fading.

The survey shows a dramatic decline in the percentage of Americans who believe a four-year college degree is worth the costs. Only 42 percent of its respondents agreed that a “four-year college education is worth the cost because people have a better chance to get a good job and earn more income over their lifetime,” down 11 percentage points since 2013. Meanwhile, 56 percent of respondents—a leap of 16 percentage points since 2013—agreed that a college degree wasn’t “worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.”

Suspicion of college education was highest among 18- to 34-year-olds, more than 60 percent of whom answered that a degree wasn’t worth the costs. While opinions in that age group hadn’t changed much since 2017, views of college declined dramatically among Americans aged 50 or older in that time. For those 65 and older, it dropped 12 percentage points—from 56 percent to 44 percent.

And the gender divide on this question seems to be closing. While women are still slightly more likely to say that a college degree is worth the costs, the rate of women agreeing that a college degree is worth it has declined by 10 percentage points since 2017.

The findings aren’t surprising. The rate of recent high school graduates attending college has been declining in recent years, with a 3.5 percentage point drop, the largest in 30 years, occurring from 2019 to 2020. While the rate of this decline has slowed, high school students are still increasingly wary of attending college after graduation, with many explaining their views by citing the high burden of post-college debt—and the existence of well-paying jobs that require only a high school diploma.

While the rate of college attendance has been declining, participation in apprenticeship programs has increased by more than 50 percent in the past decade. These programs give participants valuable skills that lead directly to well-paying jobs—and without burdensome student loan debt.

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