Is higher education worth it?

Over the last decade, some Americans have grown skeptical of the value of a college degree.

“Tuition is rising; people are spending 10, 20, 50 thousand dollars to get a B.A. and then struggling to find a job. They want to know: What are we getting in return for our investment?” said Carlo Salerno, Vice President, Data Analytics, at Strada Education Network, a nonprofit organization focused on college completion.

To center the education consumer’s perspective in this conversation, Strada has partnered with Gallup, Inc., to create the Education Consumer Pulse (ECP), the largest-ever survey on how American adults think about the value of post-secondary training.

“Nearly every other major industry has embraced and benefited from the transformative information that comes from consumer insights,” reads the ECP website. In order to do the same for higher education, the ECP aims “to become the most extensive database of education consumer insights to date.” (Subscribe here to receive ECP updates.)

Survey structure and timeline

The ECP is a 3-year project that conducts approximately 50-question interviews with 350 U.S. adults a day, 350 days each year. When finished, it will have generated information on more than 360,000 individuals representing all levels of educational attainment -- those who are contemplating college, who never attended college, who stopped out, and who completed.

To date, Gallup and Strada are about half way through their survey period; information is already available on the postsecondary experiences on more than 165,000 individuals.

Early findings

Thus far, ECP has released two major reports. Key findings are below.

On Second Thought: U.S. Adults Reflect on Their Education Decisions. The first major report, released in June, found that over half of respondents would change one major aspect of their college experience -- either their major area of study, their institution of choice, or their level of education. This finding held true across income levels, degrees programs, and institutional type.

“More than half would make different choices if they could do it again,” said Salerno. “It’s pretty profound that half of all adults who made this massive investment in education would, in retrospect, choose to do something differently. We need to do a better job understanding why such a large swath of people found what they thought they were buying and what they ultimately got did not line up.”

Download the full report.

Major Influence: Where Students Get Valued Advice on What to Study in College. The second report explored where people get advice regarding their choice of major.

“The premise behind the second report was simple: if people have second thoughts [as demonstrated by the first study], let’s try to understand how those decisions were made to begin with,” Salerno said. “So we went back to the well to discover how people seek and value college major advice.”

According to the report, consumers rely on informal networks, such as friends and family, rather than professionals like high school guidance and college admissions counselors.

“Why aren’t these professionals leveraged or valued as expected?” Salerno said. “Why do people rely on family members who may have no college background versus professionals in the field, or resources like the College Scorecard and institutional rankings?”

These reports don’t necessarily provide answers to these questions, but they do give policy makers rich data and information to hopefully address these key issues in a more thoughtful way.

Download the full report.

From anecdote to evidence

“Higher education is one of those crazy places where experts have endless perspectives on what a good college or a good program is, but we don’t really talk to consumers,” Salerno said. “This research can really help the AACRAO membership get some fascinating, data-rich insight.”

Salerno will share more detail about these reports during the Opening Panel Discussion “Understanding Perceptions of Value in Higher Education” at the AACRAO SEM Conference in Phoenix.

“It will be a high-level conversation, pushing the boundaries of how we think about higher education,” Salerno said. “We’ll take the findings from these reports and layer in some other broad-based national statistics to frame the problem, then dig into the consumer pulse data and talk about what these findings mean, how they give us new ways of looking at traditional problems, and hopefully ideas for developing fresh solutions.”

Register now to join the conversation at the 2017 AACRAO SEM Conference.