Illustration: Ashley Siebels
A recent New America survey asked 1,600 Americans across generations about their beliefs on higher education and economic mobility.
What they found was mix of optimism, surprises, and acknowledgment that reality doesn’t always align with expectations.
Degrees are not necessary but they do help
Here’s the big surprise: slightly more than half of Americans —51%— believed that you don’t need a college degree to get a well-paying job.
Members of Generation X, people ages 38 to 52, were the least likely to believe that you don’t need a degree to get a good job, while people ages 72 and above were the staunchest supporters of success without needing college. This backs up other government data on lower rates of matriculation. The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2013, only 66% of high school graduates enrolled in college right after graduation.
But even though Americans believe success is possible without higher education, they do recognize that degrees open more doors.
75% of Americans believed it is easier to be successful with a college degree than without one.
There is still a lot of work to be done, however, in getting Americans to believe in the power of higher education for better work.
More Americans are disillusioned with the promise of higher education being attainable for all, according to the New America results. They recognize that it’s a promise granted to a select few: about four in 10 Americans surveyed believe that every American has a “decent chance of getting into a good college.” And they suspect that the system of higher education doesn’t have their own interests at heart: 58% of Americans believed that overall, colleges, prioritize their long-term interests first instead of those of their students.
Above all, it’s millennials, the group that is the most educated generation according to 2015 Pew Research analysis, that isn’t happy with the status quo of higher education. As the group that’s most likely to have gotten a bachelor’s degree, they’re witnessing the gap between perception and reality firsthand. While 39% of members of the Silent Generation were overall okay with the current state of higher education, only 13% of millennials believed the same.
We’re just speculating, but that skepticism may have something to do with the fact that millennials owe the bulk of student loan debt in America — and that 43% of all the people who have student loans in America are paying them late or not at all.