If you're under 30 years old and went to college in the U.S., chances are you took on debt to do it. In 2017 alone, 65 percent of graduates took out loans, on average, of more than $28,000 in order to afford school.
And yet, most Americans think the cost of a college degree is worth it. Of those between the ages of 18 and 34 years old, 60 percent believe a four-year degree is worth the cost, according to a recent survey by the APM Research Lab.
Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was surprised to discover that so many Americans still think college is worth the price tag.
"We hear so much about students who are struggling to pay off their student loan debt or even struggling to find a job," she says.
She recently wrote about the survey findings and talked with survey respondents to better understand why people hold certain feelings toward the value of a degree.
In Virginia, 34-year-old survey respondent Anthony Bernazani says his degree was worth it because it makes him more competitive in the job market. He works as a computer programmer and admits that more and more people are choosing to go to coding bootcamps and get certificates rather than degrees in his field. But he insists that the college degree says something particularly important.
"Most businesses really like to see that college degree as a sign that you know how to learn," he says. "That's one of the things that I think college does best, is it really teaches you how to learn better and how to adapt to just about any job that you get."
In Minnesota, survey respondent Lee Leon told Smith-Barrow, "I went to college, and it just got me in a lot of debt." Leon had to drop out due to health issues before completing her degree. She says she now makes between $16 and $18 per hour doing work that doesn't require a degree.
According to the APM survey, about 36 percent of Americans agree with Leon that college is not worth the cost. Many of them cited high amounts of debt and the feeling that college degrees often come with a lack of specific job skills. The survey also found that differences in opinion about the value of college were both political and regional. Forty-one percent of Republicans don't think a college degree is worth it and 44 percent of people in the northeastern United States don't think a college degree is worth it.
"It was actually kind of surprising, considering how many schools are located in the Northeast," Smith-Barrow says. "All of the Ivies are in the Northeast, so we're not really sure what's happening there in terms of why so many people living in that region of the United States believe that college is not worth it."
Smith-Barrow says the experts she's talked with say college is a sound investment.
"If you have a four-year degree, on average, you make two-thirds more than someone who just has a high school diploma and you're half as likely to be unemployed," she says.
That's if you get a degree. She says it's not a good investment to start college but leave before you graduate.
"The people who often struggle the most with student loans are the ones who do not finish," she says. " And if you don't finish, it really makes the investment almost nothing."