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A college degree, long lauded as a crucial rung on the ladder to the American Dream, is no longer worth it for most Americans, according to a new survey.

The steep cost of attendance and dwindling faith in a secure job for grads are to blame for the plunging confidence in four-year degrees.

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What the research says

According to a survey conducted by The Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago, faith in a four-year college degree has plummeted starkly in recent years.

  • The survey found that 56% of Americans no longer believe a four-year college degree is worth it.
  • Specifically, respondents were asked to choose one of two statements: 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” or “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.”
  • Of those who responded to that question, 56% chose the latter statement saying college is not worth the cost, while 42% said college is worth it.
  • Young Americans aged 18 to 34 are particularly skeptical of a four-year college education, with more than 60% saying that the degree isn’t worth the cost.

This is the third time the Journal surveyed Americans on that question — once in 2013, again in 2017 and now in 2023. The latest survey, which polled more than 1,000 people from March 1-13, reflects the first time a majority of respondents told the Journal that college isn’t worth the money.

  • In 2013, 40% said college wasn’t worth the cost, and that number jumped to 47% in 2017. The latest results mark a 9 percent point increase in the share of folks who say they don’t believe a four-year degree is worth it.
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Key context

The Journal’s surveys underscore a trend in growing disenchantment with the value of a college education.

As college costs continue to rise, that disenchantment appears to deepen. According to the latest data from the Education Department, which is for the academic year of 2020-2021, the average cost of tuition, room and board at a four-year institution was about $29,000, an inflation-adjusted cost increase of more than 11% compared to a decade prior.

Over the years, Gallup has similarly tapped Americans’ perceptions of a college education. When the firm asked about the importance of a college education in 2013, 70% of respondents said it was “very important.” When asked again in 2019, only 51% of respondents said the same.

More recently in 2021, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 60% of adults said that a college degree is either “probably” or “definitely” worth the time and money.

However, in that same survey, an overwhelming majority of employers, 87%, said a degree is worth it.

And employers are the ones ultimately determining the financial worth of a college education — in the form of higher paying jobs. A study from the New York Federal Reserve last year found that recent college grads earned $22,000 more annually than their counterparts with only a high school diploma.

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