When Mike Lally graduated from Michigan State University in 1984, degrees were often considered optional. Today, the Senior Food Safety Inspector with the Michigan Department of Agriculture says a degree is crucial for his job. "I could not have pursued my current career without it," he said.
According to a 2011 Pew Research Center report, Lally is not alone in valuing his college degree. In addition, like most of those participating in the study, the father of four expects his children to pursue a degree or technical training and insists education is essential to career success.
Pew Research Center: Is College Worth It?
The 2011 Pew Center report asks Is College Worth It?, and the answer from most graduates is a resounding "yes." Of survey respondents, 86 percent of college graduates believe their education was a good personal investment. In addition, 88 percent of those with a bachelor's degree said their education was useful or somewhat useful in preparing for a career.
Those numbers are similar to findings published last year by the American Council on Education (ACE). After factoring in the time and money involved in pursuing a degree, 89 percent of the ACE survey respondents agreed their education was worth it. The poll also found that 85 percent of graduates felt their studies prepared them for their jobs.
Benefits of a college degree
Statistically, there is little question that degree holders earn more than those with less education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that the median weekly income for an individual with a bachelor's degree was $1,038 in 2010. At the same time, those with only a high school diploma earned $626 a week.
In its 2011 report, the Pew Center found similar financial benefits. College graduates can expect to earn $650,000 more during a lifetime compared to high school graduates, according to the report. While a degree can increase earning potential, the report authors caution that returns are not the same for all majors. Degrees in engineering, computers and science/medicine resulted in the largest financial rewards.
Although higher income is often considered the main benefit of a college degree, the Pew Center also identified job satisfaction as a reason to pursue higher education. Researchers found that 55 percent of graduates were very satisfied with their work compared to 40 percent of non-graduates. Those with a graduate degree report even higher levels of work satisfaction--69 percent said they are very satisfied with their current job.
Rising college costs put education out of reach for some
Despite widespread belief that an education represents a gateway to a better life, many Americans have serious concerns with the price tag attached to a degree. The Pew Center reports the cost of education has tripled since 1980, and 75 percent of its poll respondents said college is too expensive.
In response, some argue education isn't as expensive as the public might think. The Association of American Universities (AAU) represents 62 public and private research universities. Its membership roster includes some of the country's most prestigious--and most expensive--institutions, including Harvard, Princeton and Yale. On the subject of rising tuition costs, AAU Vice President of Public Affairs Barry Toiv says, "While the College Board confirms that published college tuition prices are rising slightly more rapidly than the prices of other goods and services, the average net tuition and fees--the prices actually paid by students--are lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than they were five years ago."
But the cost of higher education still prevents many from going on to earn a degree. Lally would like to return to school to earn a graduate or law degree, but finds that family obligations and tuition costs make it unrealistic right now. "A master's…would give me more flexibility to pursue things inside or outside the government," he said. However, the need to pay the bills means that goal must be put on hold. "Not now with five other mouths to feed," he said.
That sentiment is shared by many respondents to the Pew survey. Two-thirds say further education is out of reach because they need to support their families. Another 57 percent report they would rather work and make money, and 48 percent indicate they simply can't afford a degree.
For the 94 percent of parents who, like Lally, say it is important for their children to attend college, financing a degree can be a challenge. In Lally's case, he plans to encourage his children to apply for scholarships and take advantage of opportunities that can cut costs and help lessen the need to take out student loans, such as serving as a residential assistant in campus dorms.
Online education and college accessibility
Online learning addresses a big barrier to higher education: the need to earn an income. Although traditional degree programs may require a full-time commitment, online programs are often specifically structured to work around existing employment and family obligations. That may be one reason why students studying online are generally older. At the University of Illinois at Springfield, the average age of online students is 34 in undergraduate programs and 35 in graduate programs. In addition, the university reports that half its students in the online grad school are enrolled in online degree majors.
Regardless of whether students pursue online or on-campus programs, many graduates and experts agree with AAU's Toiv who says that a college degree is worth the price. "While there are understandable concerns about college costs…a college education offers knowledge and critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills that provide individuals with opportunities in their professional and personal lives."