Study: High Schoolers Find Less Value in a College Education

Students find more value in credentials that can prove skills and job-training programs.
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Evan Castillo is a reporter on BestColleges News and wrote for the Daily Tar Heel during his time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's covered topics ranging from climate change to general higher education news, and he is passiona...
Published on March 25, 2024
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  • The findings continue from a 2022 study focusing on adults who didn't attend college.
  • High schoolers are confident in pre-college preparation but anxious about making the wrong decisions when it comes to financial aid and college affordability.
  • High school students and adults who didn't attend college ranked on-the-job training as the best educational value and a four-year college as the fourth.

High schoolers and people who didn't attend college find less value in a traditional two-year or four-year degree and more in credentials and job-training programs.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a study March 12 finding that high schoolers value traditional colleges less and are afraid of making the wrong decisions when it comes to financial aid and college affordability.

The study follows up on research from 2022 focusing on 18- to 30-year-olds who didn't complete or enroll in college. The study sought to see if higher education opinions changed within this group and how current high school juniors and seniors perceived college.

Despite our understanding of the value of higher education, perceptions among these audiences make it clear that institutions need to prove their value to them, the most recent study said. In particular, why does the value of a two-year or four-year degree outweigh the value of credentials and job-training programs?

Putting More Value in Skill-Based Education

High school students and 18- to 30-year-old non-enrollees ranked on-the-job training as the highest value of education and training opportunities, according to the recent study. A four-year college or university ranked fourth, and a two-year college just below that.

Just over half of non-enrollees agreed with the statement, These days, a good job requires a college degree, and 58% of high schoolers responded the same way.

In comparison, about two-thirds of each group agreed with the statement, These days, a good job requires a certification as proof of someone's skills.

Some of the most popular credentials in higher education are microcredentials. Microcredentials are stackable learning modules that teach specific practical skills at a lower cost than pursuing a traditional degree.

For example, the average cost of an EdX MicroMaster specialization was around $1,500, with all Micromasters being between $200-$4,700. Coursera charges $49-$79 per month for specializations, according to a BestColleges report.

The top reason for non-enrollees to get a college degree was to make more money, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation study. For high schoolers that answer is tied with the ability to get a better job or promotion.

The study said that non-enrollees' importance scores declined for all reasons to get a college degree since last year's survey.

High Schoolers and Unenrolled Adults Share Similar Fears, Live in Different Worlds of College Information

High school students are afraid of making the wrong college decisions, according to the study. They know pre-college prep — academic preparedness and values of different degrees — well, but they say they understand little about how financial aid works, how to get it, and what they can afford.

Non-enrollees share similar fears about making the wrong college decisions, but they weigh family and job responsibilities against attending a four- or two-year college. Both groups want academic, financial, and career guidance while navigating college and living expenses.

Cost was the third-highest concern for Black and Hispanic students, who are at greater risk of leaving their college programs than white students, a study reports. The 2024 Lumina-Gallup State of Higher Education Study also found that financial aid and scholarships were very important for 59% of Black and 59% of Hispanic unenrolled adults.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation study showed that high schoolers are more likely to report that their top sources share positive information about college, while non-enrollees see more mixed messages. High schoolers are surrounded by higher education information, while non-enrollees are on the outside looking in.

Non-enrollees' primary sources of information are Google searches, college websites, social media, and peers.

Both non-enrollees and high schoolers are more likely to attend college if they perceive their college-related information as more positive.

These audiences feel anxious about making the wrong choices when it comes to college, and that those choices will impact the rest of their lives, the study said.

High schoolers are at the epicenter of the college information network. Non-enrollees, on the other hand, are forced to seek information about colleges, and the information they find tends to be less positive compared to what high schoolers receive and consume about higher education.