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Dive Brief: 

  • Just over half of adults who attended college said the lifetime financial benefits of their higher education outweigh the costs, according to an annual survey on U.S. financial well-being from the Federal Reserve. 
  • Around one-fifth of adults suggested higher education wasn’t worth the costs, while the remainder said the associated benefits and the expenses were about the same. 
  • These assessments depended on several factors, including where adults attended college, whether they completed their programs and whether they have outstanding student loans. 

Dive Insight: 

  Some surveys indicate U.S. residents are increasingly questioning whether college is worth the cost. But the Fed’s findings haven’t changed much over the years, according to the report.   

Still, the report provides insight into the factors that lead adults to say college paid off for them. Generally, satisfaction rose with the degree attained. 

More than two-thirds of respondents who finished a bachelor’s degree, 68%, said college was financially worthwhile, compared to 42% of adults with an associate’s degree. Just 30% of adults who attended college without earning a degree said the costs were worth it. 

Adults aged 45 and older also tended to consider their education was valuable enough to warrant the cost. 

That trend may reflect that older adults have had more time to see their college attendance pay off in earnings. But it could also be due to younger adults grappling with the rising use of student loans and increasing costs of higher education, according to the report. 

Less than half of adults with outstanding student loans, 43%, said the financial benefits of college outweigh its costs. Meanwhile, 53% of adults who had paid off their student loans or never took on debt said the same. 

Institution type also matters. Adults who attended private nonprofits were most likely to say their education was worth the cost, at 58%. That’s compared to 53% of adults who attended public colleges and 31% of for-profit alumni. 

However, only a small share of people who went to college, just 9%, said they would complete less education or skip college altogether if they could do it over. Nearly a third, or 32%, of those with at least bachelor’s degrees said they would have pursued more education. Almost two-thirds, or 64%, with less than a bachelor’s degree said the same. 

More than one-third of respondents, 37%, also said they would have pursued a different field of study if they could make those decisions today. Those who enrolled in humanities or arts programs were the most likely, at 49%, to say they would take another route. They were followed by adults who took social/behavioral sciences programs (43%) and physical sciences/math programs (41%). 

In contrast, only 26% of adults who attended engineering programs said they would pick differently today. This group was also the most likely to say the financial benefits of their education were greater than its costs — at 72%

The survey was fielded in October. The report was based on data from nearly 11,700 respondents.