As millions of soon-to-be high school graduates contemplate whether higher education is the right next step for them, there’s one question at the heart of it all – is college worth it?

On one hand, the majority of jobs in the U.S. require post-secondary education beyond high school, and research shows that having a bachelor’s degree substantially increases lifetime earning potential.

On the other hand, tuition costs have soared in recent years, resulting in $1.7 trillion of student loan debt.

To help answer this question, Intelligent.com went straight to the source. In March 2022, we surveyed 1,250 college graduates ages 25 and older regarding their opinions on whether or not attending college was worth it and what the benefits and disadvantages are.

Key Findings

  • 39% of college graduates ‘strongly agree’ that attending college was worth it, while 41% ‘agree.’
    • 14% ‘disagree’ that attending college was worth it, and 6% ‘strongly disagree.’
  • 42% of grads who don’t think college was worth it say college is a poor investment
  • 4 in 10 grads who say college wasn’t worth are repaying student loans, compared to 3 in 10 grads who think it was worth it
  • 31% of graduates who don’t think college was worth it would opt for trade or vocational school instead of a 4-year institution

42% of grads who don’t think college was worth it say it’s a poor return on investment

Overall, the majority of respondents, 80%, either ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ with the statement “attending college was worth it.”

Among the 20% of respondents with a contradicting opinion, 14% ‘disagree’ that college was worth it, and 6% ‘strongly disagree.’

Financial implications topped the list of reasons why dissatisfied graduates say college wasn’t worth it.

Forty-two percent of respondents who say college wasn’t worth it say that’s because it’s a poor return on investment. That’s compared to 21% of graduates who feel that attending college was worth it.

Other top reasons are career-related. Thirty-three percent of dissatisfied college grads say that college wasn’t worth it because they could’ve gotten a job in their desired field without a college degree. Respondents in this group who selected this answer included those who majored in business (20%), technology (9%), social sciences (9%), and visual arts (9%).

Twenty-nine percent say college wasn’t worth it because general education courses, a standard of most bachelor’s degree programs, were a waste of time and money, while 25% don’t think their degree program adequately prepared them for a job in their field.

Grads with student loan debt more likely to have negative opinion of college

The specter of 45 million Americans with student loan debt looms large over any conversation about whether attending college is worth it.

Thirty-five percent of survey respondents didn’t use any student loans to pay for college. Thirty-one percent did, but have repaid their loans in full, while 34% are still repaying their student loans.

However, when looked at by whether respondents feel like college was worth it, those numbers shift. Forty-three percent of respondents who disagree or strongly disagree that college was worth it are still repaying student loans, compared to 32% of graduates who say attending college was worth it.

Pessimism about student loans is also a key reason why graduates say college wasn’t worth it. Twenty-nine percent of dissatisfied graduates say they or their families took on student loan debt they won’t be able to repay.

There’s also a correlation between career success and a sense of satisfaction in attending college.

Thirty-eight percent of grads who say college wasn’t worth it have never had a paying job in the field in which they earned their degree, compared to 24% of graduates who think college was worth it.

Comparatively, 41% of grads who say college was worth it have been working for pay in the field in which they earned their degree since graduation, while only 27% of those who disagree can say the same.

31% of graduates who say college wasn’t worth it would choose trade school in hindsight

If they could do anything differently regarding their college experience, 31% of graduates who disagree that college was worth it say they would attend a trade or a vocational school instead of a four-year college.

Twenty-nine percent would skip higher education altogether, while 29% would choose a different major.

The majors that these students most regret are business (14%), criminal justice (11%), communications (11%), and social sciences (11%).

Increased earning potential, career development top list of reasons why grads say college was worth it

Even if survey respondents ultimately didn’t think attending college was worth it, most were able to find at least one redeemable aspect of their college experience. Among all survey respondents, only 5% say attending college wasn’t worth it in any way.

Among those who agree or strongly agree that attending college was worth it, the top reasons why they feel that way are largely career-related.

Fifty-eight percent of these graduates say college was worth it because it increased their earning potential, while 57% say attending college gave them the knowledge and training they needed to get a job in their desired field. Forty-nine percent appreciated college because it expanded their overall knowledge of a variety of subjects.

Personal and social factors also played a role in making college worth it to many grads. Forty-five percent of those who say college was worthwhile cited opportunities for personal growth from living independently and being in a new environment.

Thirty-five percent say it’s because they made close friends during college. Twenty-one percent pointed to participation in extracurricular activities as something that made college worthwhile. Fourteen percent of respondents say college was worth it because that’s where they met their spouse.

High-income earners most likely to report satisfaction with college experience

Given that increased earning potential ranked high on the list of reasons why grads felt like college was worth it, it’s not surprising that the top earners surveyed are most likely to say they agree or strongly agree that college was worth it.

Among respondents who earn $100,000 or more annually, 86% agree or strongly agree that college was worth it. This is compared to 76% of graduates who earn $50,000 to $99,999 annually, and 79% of those who earn less than $50,000 per year.

Despite satisfaction, 3 in 10 college grads would choose a different major

Even if they ultimately felt like attending college was worth it, that doesn’t mean that graduates would do everything exactly the same if given the opportunity for a do-over.

Thirty-one percent of respondents who say attending college was worth it wouldn’t change anything about their experience, compared to 12% of grads who disagree.

However, 33% would choose a different major if given the chance. Regrets over choice of major is higher among some fields of studies than others.

The majors that respondents most wish they could change include humanities-related majors like English, history, and religious studies (47%), communication majors like journalism and public relations (39%), criminal justice (37%), and performing arts (35%).

Meanwhile 23% of those who say attending college was worth it would choose a less expensive school. The same percentage would opt to take a gap year before starting college.

Methodology

All data found within this report derives from a survey commissioned by Intelligent.com and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. In total, 1,250 American adults ages 25 and older who had a college degree were surveyed. To qualify for the survey, each respondent had to have a minimum education level of a bachelor’s degree. Appropriate respondents were found via Pollfish’s screening tools. This survey was conducted from March 25-6, 2022. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities. For full survey data, please email Content Marketing Specialist Kristen Scatton at [email protected].