For a nation that needs more college graduates, we seem oddly hellbent on discouraging as many people as possible from getting degrees.
We have not been able to contain the ever-rising cost, simplify needlessly complicated financial aid forms or protect lower-income aspirants from the for-profit colleges that want to fleece them. Then there are all the media stories questioning the worth of a college degree.
The latest headlines, prompted by a multiyear survey on attitudes toward college conducted by pollster Gallup and Purdue University, provide breathtaking examples
"Less than half of recent grads think college was worth the cost."
"Just half of graduates say their education was worth the cost."
"Recent grads doubt college's worth."
You might be surprised to learn, then, that the actual poll of 30,000 college alumni found that the vast majority of college graduates agreed that their education was worth the cost. Recent graduates were less enthusiastic than older graduates, but only the recent graduates who took out more than $50,000 in loans were unlikely to agree that their degrees were worth what they paid.
The grads in the national online survey were asked to rate on a 1-to-5 scale whether their educations were worth the cost, with 1 meaning "strongly disagree" and 5 "strongly agree."
Nationally, 77% agreed, answering with a "4" (27%) or a "5" (50%).
Among those who graduated between 2006 and 2015, some 65% agreed their educations were worth the cost, with 27% choosing "4" and 38% responding with a "5."
Brandon Busteed, Gallup's executive director for education and workforce development, said his team expected more people to strongly agree that their educations were worthwhile.
"It was surprising to me that it wasn't higher than that," Busteed said. "It doesn't mean that half of the people think their education wasn't worth it."
The reduced conviction among recent graduates is hardly surprising. Those grads emerged with more debt and poorer employment prospects due to a struggling economy. As the debt gets paid off and their earnings rise, they may have a change of heart.
They also will have a chance to witness what happens to their peers who have only high school degrees as an already-substantial earnings gap continues to widen.
High school graduates earn about 62% of what those with four-year degrees earn, according to a Pew Research Center study. In 1979, people with only high school educations earned 77% of what college graduates made.
It is not that college graduates are earning so much more, but that the incomes and economic opportunities for high-school-only graduates have collapsed.
It is true that many people pay too much for college. That shows up in the higher levels of dissatisfaction found among graduates of for-profit colleges and those with $50,000 or more in student loans. Thirteen percent of the for-profit grads and 18% of the deeply indebted grads strongly disagreed with the statement that their educations were worth the cost, compared with the national average of 4%.
Increased amounts of debt also make it more likely graduates have delayed goals such as going back to school for more education, buying a home or buying a car, the index found.
The bottom line is that most educations are not worth having to take on massive debt. In addition, not everyone needs a four-year degree. Some people with bachelor's degrees do not earn very much, and may have been better off learning a trade or obtaining a two-year degree.
But virtually everyone should consider some post-secondary training if they do not want to fall down the economic ladder. And that is the message we should be sending, loud and clear.