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Don’t Believe Everything You Read About Higher Education

On my Twitter feed one morning last week, this story made the rounds. One-third of Millennials (aged 22-32) regret having gone to college. We can expect this finding to become a part of the “higher education bubble” story, which goes like this. Thanks to increasing worries about student loan debt, high tuition, and the difficulty even college graduates have on the job market, students and parents are seeing more and more that college isn’t worth it. As a result, we can expect to see a radical transformation of the higher education sector, which will be conquered by nimbler, cheaper, online alternatives. I have written about the bubble argument here.

The pressures on brick-and-mortar colleges that bubble enthusiasts identify are real. But they have been sensationalized. It is simply not true that one-third of Millennial graduates regret having gone to college.

That number comes from a survey, commissioned by Wells Fargo, and conducted by Market Pro, Inc., comparing the views of Millennials and Baby Boomers (aged 48-66). Alas, the survey is not available online, but I was able to obtain a copy from Wells Fargo.

Millennial college graduates were asked to respond to this statement: “I would probably be better off financially in the long run if instead of going to college and paying tuition, I had spent those years working and starting my career.” Eleven percent strongly agreed with that statement, and 19 percent somewhat agreed with it. While agreeing “somewhat” that one would probably have been financially better off skipping college is hardly the same as regretting you have gone to college, one can, allowing for the loose way in which journalists often report surveys, accept that one-third of Millennials at least doubt that college was worth it from a financial perspective. But there are two other survey findings that have gone unreported.

There is no excuse for not reporting the first, because the Wells Fargo report blares it: “Virtually all Millennials and Boomers believe their college education to be a good value.” “Thinking about the cost of a college education and the opportunities it provides, would you rate the value of your education a great value, somewhat of a value, not much of a value, or no value at all?” Eighty-eight percent of Millennials and 90 percent of Boomers selected one of the first two options. I think the Wells Fargo report exaggerates this finding; thinking that your college education is “somewhat of a value” does not mean that you think your college education is a good value. Still, Wells Fargo’s exaggeration is no worse that “one-third of Millennials regret having gone to college.”

Only 43 percent of Millennials, compared to 53 percent of Boomers, say that their college education was a great financial value. But if you had asked me, even in a good economy, even in a period when graduates carried less loan debt, whether older people would appreciate their college educations more than younger ones, I would have answered “yes” and expected a difference of at least the magnitude Wells Fargo found. What is surprising is that there is no significant difference when the “somewhat of a value” and “great value” categories are put together. Given the growing popularity of the story that more and more young people think that college isn’t worth it, that finding is arguably the real headline news.

Also left out is that Millennials without college degrees were asked to respond to this statement: “I would probably be better off in the long run if I had attended/received a college education, even considering the cost of education.” Notice that this statement, the flip side of the one about working instead of going to college, is, unlike that one, worded to put the respondent in mind of costs, while saying nothing about “opportunities.” Nonetheless, 75 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that they would probably have been better off going to college.

I do not mean to suggest that everything, or much of anything, is rosy for colleges and universities at the moment, nor do I mean to suggest that every graduate or potential student should consider higher education a great value. But people who are concerned about the future of higher education, whatever they think that future may bring, should be able to agree that our reflections on it need to be founded in careful interpretations of the data we have.

Everyone needs to calm down.