Americans Believe Cost of College Is More Important Than Prestige
Published on August 9, 2021
- A majority of Americans think cost is among the most important factors when choosing a college.
- Only 7% of Americans would tell prospective students to consider a school's prestige.
- Still, Americans recognize the benefits of graduating from a prestigious school.
As the cost of a college education continues to rise, Americans are in agreement about the importance of cost when making college decisions. In a new BestColleges survey of 2,663 Americans, 60% of respondents said that the cost of attending college (including financial aid and scholarship availability) is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing what school to attend.
Factors like student life, prestige, and ranking were less important to respondents than the actual cost and the percentage of graduates employed in their field post-graduation.
Just over a third of respondents (39%) credited a degree from a prestigious university as one of the best ways to achieve success in someone's life or career. Still, a majority of Americans (62%) overwhelmingly agreed that earning a degree from a prestigious school is not a path that is accessible to most communities or student populations due to social, cultural, or economic barriers.
For most Americans, college choice comes down to cost and return on investment in the form of career success, rather than institutional prestige.
How Americans Define College Prestige
Prestigious College: An institution that has developed a reputation for excellence. It is held in high regard and often has a competitive admissions process.
This definition was provided to survey participants.
Any number of factors can go into what makes a college or university prestigious. Some schools earn their prestigious reputation because of their exclusivity. Others are considered prestigious for their academic rigor or their long list of notable graduates. But nearly one-third of Americans (32%) believe that one of the top contributing factors to a school's prestige is its percentage of graduates who are employed in their field soon after graduation.
Qualities like academic rigor, faculty qualifications, and actual cost of attendance are also key factors that contribute to school prestige, according to survey respondents.
Many Americans believe that graduating from a prestigious university allows for increased benefits and opportunities in one's professional and personal life. Nearly half of Americans (44%) believe that earnings/income potential is enhanced by graduating from a prestigious school over another kind of school.
A third of Americans each additionally believe that general career success (33%) and the development of a professional network (also 33%) are further enhanced by graduating from a prestigious institution over another type of college.
Despite Enhanced Benefits, Americans Value Cost Over Prestige
Though many Americans believe that graduating from a prestigious university comes with increased benefits, just over a third (39%) agreed that earning a degree from one is worth the additional investment of time, resources, and energy that may be required. Fourteen percent said there were no benefits to graduating from a prestigious school over another.
Less than a tenth of survey respondents (7%) reported that they would advise someone to consider prestige as one of the most important factors in choosing what college to attend. Instead, cost of attendance and the percentage of graduates employed in their field soon after graduation topped the list of the most important factors to consider when choosing a school.
The overwhelming majority of respondents age 57 and older (69%) selected cost of attendance as one of the most important factors for prospective students to consider. Younger respondents (ages 18 to 40), however, were slightly less likely to choose cost of attendance, with just under half (49%) selecting it as an important consideration.
Interestingly, younger generations were almost three times more likely than older generations (baby boomers and the silent generation, or respondents age 57+) to advise someone to consider an institution's prestige when choosing a school to attend (11% vs. 4%).
Black respondents were more than twice as likely as white respondents to select a campus's diversity, equity, and inclusion as an important factor to consider (32% vs. 15%). Meanwhile, white respondents were the most likely of any racial/ethnic group to select cost of attendance as an important consideration (64%).
Americans Want Return on Investment for College Education
When asked about the three most important potential benefits of a college education, the majority of Americans pointed to securing employment (45%), developing specific skills (43%), and maximizing earnings/income potential (41%).
Older generations (baby boomers and the silent generation) were more likely than Generation Z and millennials to choose securing employment (54% vs. 37%) and maximizing earnings (49% vs. 31%) as important potential benefits.
Younger generations were more than twice as likely than older generations to select benefits like lifelong friendships (14% vs. 6%) and social status (8% vs. 2%) as important. However, percentages were still low across all age groups.
What's clear from these responses is that Americans want tangible benefits from a college education, such as improved job prospects, greater likelihood of career success, and enhanced quality of life. Other potential benefits — like friendships, social status, and a well-rounded professional network — are less important to respondents than knowing they've developed professional skills and have a promising career path.
BestColleges.com commissioned YouGov PLC to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov PLC. The total sample size was 2,663 adults. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (aged 18+). Fieldwork was undertaken on July 14-16, 2021. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards.
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