We may earn a fee if you click on the links below. Compensation does not determine ranking. Not all brands are included. Learn more.

Published: May 23, 2024 4 min read
College students in a graduation ceremony
Money; Getty Images

Is college worth the money? Fewer Americans are weighing in with a definitive yes in this never-ending debate, as college costs remain expensive and people without degrees earn higher incomes.

According to a new Pew Research Center poll, only 22% of Americans believe that college is worth the cost if the person has to take out student loans. Nearly half (47%) say that college is worth the money, but only if you don’t need loans, while 29% think college is not worth it, period.

In another sign of the relative value people place on higher education today, 49% of those surveyed by Pew say a college degree is less important to getting a high-paying job than it was 20 years ago. By contrast, only 32% think a college degree is more important for landing a good job compared to 20 years ago and 17% say the level of importance hasn’t changed.

Ads by Money. We may be compensated if you click this ad.AdAds by Money disclaimer
Cover your college expenses with a Student Loan, so you can focus solely on your grades and education.
With a Student Loan, you can worry less about tuition and devote your energy to mapping out your future. Click on your state and take the first step today.
HawaiiAlaskaFloridaSouth CarolinaGeorgiaAlabamaNorth CarolinaTennesseeRIRhode IslandCTConnecticutMAMassachusettsMaineNHNew HampshireVTVermontNew YorkNJNew JerseyDEDelawareMDMarylandWest VirginiaOhioMichiganArizonaNevadaUtahColoradoNew MexicoSouth DakotaIowaIndianaIllinoisMinnesotaWisconsinMissouriLouisianaVirginiaDCWashington DCIdahoCaliforniaNorth DakotaWashingtonOregonMontanaWyomingNebraskaKansasOklahomaPennsylvaniaKentuckyMississippiArkansasTexas
View Rates

Why sentiment is souring on the value of college

Pew’s new survey data mirrors other research indicating a decrease in people saying college is worth the money. For years, there’s been a general decline in the belief that college pays off, largely due to rising costs and subsequent student loan debt.

Since 2000, average published tuition and fees, even after adjusting for inflation, have increased 46% at private colleges and a whopping 81% at public four-year colleges, according to data from education nonprofit the College Board.

More recently, there's been growth in opportunities to make a good living without a bachelor’s degree, which seems to also be affecting the relative value people place on college.

“After decades of falling wages, young U.S. workers (ages 25 to 34) without a bachelor’s degree have seen their earnings increase over the past 10 years,” the Pew report explains. “Their overall wealth has gone up too, and fewer are living in poverty today.”

The complication is that while people without college degrees are earning higher income, their college-educated counterparts have been growing their wealth as well, and the gap in earnings and net worth is widening. The median earnings for young men working full time with just a high school education has increased by about $5,700 from 2014 to now, according to Pew data. At the same time, earnings for young men with four-year college degrees rose by $9,500. (Pew's numbers are in 2022 dollars, adjusted for inflation.)

The trajectories and earnings gaps are similar for women. Median earnings for young women with just a high school education working full time rose roughly $5,100 over the past decade, compared to an increase of almost $10,000 for young women with bachelor’s degrees.

The changes in net worth for different groups is perhaps the best indication of whether or not college pays off. Among households headed by high school grads, median wealth increased from $12,700 in 2013 to $30,700 as of 2022.

That seems like a sizable leap, but it pales in comparison to the net worth growth among households with college degrees: $46,600 to $120,200.

Ads by Money. We may be compensated if you click this ad.AdAds by Money disclaimer

Cover up to 100% of your college costs

#1 Choice for Students & Co-signers

  • Lowest rates - starting at 4.17% APR 1
  • Cover up to 100% of your school costs 2
  • Enter to win a $1,000 scholarship, awarded monthly
  • Checking rates won't affect your credit score
  • Flexible options for repayment and no origination fees

View All College Ave Rates

No fees ever

Easy Online Application

  • Undergraduate fixed APRs from 4.19% - 14.30% (with autopay)1
  • No fees ever
  • Flexible terms and repayment options
  • Students with cosigners are 5x more likely to be approved*

Apply online in minutes

  • Variable rates 5.37% - 15.70% 
  • Fixed rates 4.50% - 15.49% 
  • Lowest rates shown include 0.25 percentage point interest rate discount with auto debit payments.¹
  • Applying online is easy - you could receive a credit result in about 10 minutes.
  • Multiple repayment options from in-school payments to deferred.¹ No origination fee or prepayment penalty.²
  • Borrow up to 100% of school-certified expenses, whether you're online or on campus.³
  • Last year, students were 4x more likely to be approved with a cosigner.⁴

Prequalify to estimate rate without affecting your credit score

Prequalify to estimate rate without affecting your credit score

  • Submit online application in minutes
  • No application fees, origination fees, and/or prepayment penalty
  • Flexible repayment terms to fit your needs and goals
  • Student Loan Advisor to guide you through the application process

More from Money:

How to Pay for College

Guide to College Grants and Colleges

The Best Colleges in America

Ads by Money. We may be compensated if you click this ad.Ad
Reach new academic heights with College Ave