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Published: Jul 09, 2024 3 min read
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Money, Getty Images

Most Americans say two-year colleges provide an education worth the cost, but just a fraction of the public is sold on the value of a four-year school.

Only 18% of respondents in a new Gallup poll said they have at least “quite a lot” of confidence that the education at four-year universities is worth the money, while 55% said they have that confidence for two-year colleges.

There was an even bigger gap when survey respondents were asked about affordability. The poll found that 58% of people have a high amount of confidence in the ability of two-year colleges to provide an affordable education, but that drops to 11% for four-year universities.

“The percentage of Americans with very little confidence in higher education is at an all-time high,” Gallup researchers said in a report. “Lower confidence ratings in four-year institutions and concerns about the cost and value of the degrees they provide may partially explain these declining ratings.”

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The Gallup report adds to a large volume of research showing Americans’ deep skepticism in the value of college education. However, the research also shows that the public has more favorable views toward higher education when the time commitment and costs are lower.

Community colleges, many of which offer free tuition, have also been gaining enrollment in the past year. According to College Board research, the cost of a public two-year college for in-district students is much less than in-state costs at public four-year universities.

For the 2023-2024 year, the average cost (tuition, fees, housing and food) after grant aid was $9,640 at two-year colleges versus $15,500 at four-year public schools. Out-of-state costs at four-year colleges and private colleges are far more expensive than either option.

Is college worth the money?

Given American colleges’ mediocre graduation rates and the national issue of student debt, it’s easy to see where the concern about college value comes from.

But despite the public’s negative perception, economic research shows that a four-year degree usually leads to better career outcomes and higher wages, justifying the price tag.

The typical recent college graduate earned $60,000 in 2023, which compares to $36,000 for high school graduates, according to the New York Federal Reserve.

Some universities perform much better than others when it comes to helping students graduate into high-paying roles at an affordable cost. Money’s 2024 Best Colleges ratings, released last month, score 745 schools on factors including graduation rates, cost of attendance, financial aid and alumni salaries to help students make informed choices.

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