Key Insights From Three Years of Student Surveys

Over the years, college students have come to feel more prepared to enter the workforce but less certain about the value of their degrees.
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Jessica Bryant
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Senior Data Reporter

Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Published on June 3, 2024
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Lyss Welding
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Higher Education Research Analyst

Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
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Data Summary

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    Between 2022 and 2024, the percentage of students who say college is worth the cost declined by 14 percentage points.
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    In 2022, students told us that college was not necessary to be successful. Now most agree that a degree alone is not enough to find success or employment.
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    Over the last six months, 2 in 5 students (38.5%) have worried about increased AI usage in education.
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    Years after the COVID-19 pandemic, students still report negative mental health impacts due to inflation and other external factors.
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    Campus diversity efforts consistently remain important to students despite nationwide attempts to eliminate them.
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    The percentage of students who feel that school has prepared them to enter the workforce has increased by 11 percentage points between 2021 and 2024.

Since 2021, BestColleges has repeatedly surveyed large groups of current and prospective undergraduate and graduate students. Our goal is to gain insight into the topics that matter most to students today.

Below, we've gathered some of the most compelling data we've collected over the last three years, detailing the biggest trends in higher education according to students. This includes college costs; mental health; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); artificial intelligence (AI), and much more.

Students Increasingly Wary About the Value of a College Degree

Between 2022 and 2024, a growing percentage of students have reported conflicting feelings about the value of a college degree.

Most recently, 1 in 4 students (25%) told us they rate the value of a college degree today as bad or very bad.

Though 37% still say they rate its value as good or very good, there is a clear shift in what students believe they can get out of their degree these days.

Below, we explore some of the many reasons for this shift in perception over the last few years.

Rising College Costs Play a Big Role

In one of our 2022 surveys of more than 2,500 Americans, nearly two-thirds of respondents (62%) agreed that the financial challenges that come with earning a degree make college inaccessible.

Just over half of these respondents (54%) cited the rising cost of tuition as one of the main reasons people are choosing not to pursue a degree. Forty-eight percent said not wanting to incur student debt was one of the main reasons people forgo college plans.

That same year, we surveyed more than 400 currently enrolled student-borrowers and found that 44% had considered dropping out due to the financial burden of school.

Between 1963 and 2022, the average cost of college increased by 128% when adjusting for inflation.Note Reference [1] Over just the last two decades, costs have risen nearly 40% to more than $27,000 a year.

Average student loan debt over the last 16 years has also more than doubled.Note Reference [2]

As a result of these rising sticker prices, only 1 in 3 students now say college is worth the cost (33%) — 14 percentage points less than the percentage of students who said the same in 2022.

The Growth of Nondegree Pathways Helps Students Envision a Different Future

Though costs are undoubtedly a large part of why students' outlook on the value of a degree has declined, the rise in alternative education programs and non-degree pathways also contributes to this shift in perception.

In 2022, we surveyed 1,000 current and prospective undergraduate and graduate students and found that 69% agreed that you don't need a college education to be successful.

Slightly more students agreed that college is just one of many options to finding success (74%).

Earlier that same year, we surveyed high school students, and less than half (48%) planned to pursue a degree or certification immediately after graduation.

While many (53%) were optimistic about their future post-high school, an almost equal percentage (52%) admitted to feeling pressure to make certain decisions about their futures too soon.

Today, current college students tell us that a degree simply isn't enough to secure success and employment: 63% say you also need things like internships, work experience, or extracurriculars to get a job after graduating. About 1 in 5 (19%) also say a college degree is not essential for career success in today's job market.

AI's Impact on Education Worries Students About Their Degree's Worth

As the use of AI in education continues to rise, students' concerns about its potential impacts have also increased.

Last year, just over half of students (51%) told us they think using AI tools to complete assignments is cheating. Forty percent also said that student use of AI defeats the purpose of education.

Further, they said that if AI becomes regularly used in coursework (59%), by professors (50%), or even in the workforce (55%) it would diminish the value of earning a degree.

Students Continue to Experience Mental Health Challenges

In early 2021, 95% of college students told BestColleges that they had experienced negative mental health symptoms as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even as the pandemic's impacts on education began to wane, student mental health challenges persisted.

In 2022, 46% of 1,000 current students rated their mental health as less than good. More than half of students (57%) additionally reported that they had sought mental health assistance programs and services either through or outside of their school.

The following year, 3 in 5 current students (60%) reported that inflation had impacted their mental well-being.

Students Support DEI Initiatives, Want to Be Involved on Campus

Despite institutional efforts across the country to eliminate DEI initiatives and offices, students continue to express support for DEI on their campuses.

In 2022, 53% of students told us that they will participate in their school's DEI efforts. Nearly half also said their peers are committed to DEI efforts on campus (46%).

For 1 in 3 students, the DEI efforts of their institution were a factor in their choice to attend their school (34%).

Later that year, students told us they believe racial and ethnic diversity improves both the learning environment (59%) and social experience (62%) of college.

In 2023, nearly 1 in 4 students (23%) ranked diversity of the student body as one of their most important factors when choosing a college to attend.

Students Feel Prepared for the Workforce, Remain Confident About Job Prospects

Even amid a looming recession in 2021, 73% of students who were seeking employment felt optimistic about securing a job within a year of graduating.

During the same year, 51% of students said they felt college had prepared them to enter the workforce.

Student sentiment about workforce preparedness and employment options continues to be positive three years later.

In March 2024, 62% of current students told us that their degree programs have adequately prepared them to enter or advance in the workforce.

The same percentage of students told us they were confident that they would find a job using their degree (62%).

Work-Life Balance Is Still Essential

In 2022, while the pandemic's impact was still in full effect, 69% of graduating students told BestColleges that circumstances caused by COVID-19 had increased the importance of work-life balance.

But two years later, an even greater percentage of students tell us that work-life balance is a top priority when considering a job (76%).

Further, more than half of today's students now say that for any job they are considering, being asked to work beyond their designated work hours or responsibilities without additional compensation is unacceptable (57%). Just over 1 in 3 also say that working remotely is a top priority (34%).



References

  1. Table 330.10. Average undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level and control of institution: Selected academic years, 1963-64 through 2022-23. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). December 2023. (back to footnote 1 in content ⤶)
  2. Federal Student Loan Portfolio. Federal Student Aid: An Office of the U.S. Department of Education. Accessed May 2024. (back to footnote 2 in content ⤶)