August 10, 2022 – Future of Work

What we’re reading: With students getting ready to return to campus, more Americans are questioning high college costs


According to a recent article in the Winston-Salem Journal, when adjusted for inflation, the total cost of college, including tuition, room and board, and other fees, has risen approximately 160 percent since 1980. 

Are today’s colleges and universities producing results that justify the higher prices? Several new public opinion polls echo what past Charles Koch Foundation surveys have found: Americans are not sure the traditional college experience is providing value to match its cost.

As National Public Radio reported, annual surveys conducted by New America found the number of Americans who said they believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country has plummeted 14 percentage points in the last two years. The latest survey also found Americans want more accountability. An overwhelming number of respondents, 93 percent, said it important is it for colleges and universities to publicize data on key indicators of quality, such as graduation rates or graduates’ employment rates.

Other polls revealed similar findings and also found Americans are ready for alternatives to the traditional four-year degree. For example, a survey by USA Today and Public Agenda found: 

  • Americans believe community colleges offer a good value for both students and taxpayers;
  • Just 49 percent of Americans think the economic benefits of a college education outweigh the costs;
  • 66 percent of Americans see colleges as stuck in the past, unable to meet the needs of today’s students; and 
  • The largest share of Americans think the primary goals of their state’s public higher education institutions should be to provide a well-rounded education and prepare graduates for a successful career.

On that last point, Cengage Group’s 2022 Graduate Employability Report survey found just 41 percent of recent college graduates believe their degree reflects the skills they possess. Only 25 percent said, if given the chance to do over their education, they would take the same path.  Additionally, the report shows two-thirds of employers are being handcuffed by their own degree requirements and therefore failing to fill positions. Cengage noted half of all recent graduates won’t even apply for entry-level positions because they don’t feel qualified. 

Employer demands also have learners rethinking the value of a traditional college education. 

“As the labor market changes so quickly, employers are looking more at skills-based hiring,” Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education told WTOP radio station. “So it’s really important for individuals to think about the job they want and the skills that are needed and pick an education program that’s going to provide them with those skills. Regardless of where it’s located or whether it’s a traditional or nontraditional program.”

Want to learn more about this topic? Check out:

New poll: Over half of Americans under 40 believe they will need to upskill