Most Americans See Good Value in Community College and Vocational Programs. Opinions Are Much More Split on Various Undergraduate Offerings

More than a third of U.S. adults who took on student loans to attend college believe that the decision to take on that debt was not worth it
Graphic conveying cost of higher education
(Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Sara Wickersham)
September 29, 2022 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • About 2 in 3 U.S. adults said vocational education, community and two-year colleges offer good value in secondary education, while slightly more than half said the same when it came to getting a degree from an in-state, public university.

  • 46% of adults said attending for-profit private colleges for undergrad would not be worth the cost, while about 2 in 5 said the same for out-of-state public universities and not-for-profit private institutions.

  • Among those with student loans, 56% said that taking on debt was worth it to get a college degree, while 38% said attending college wasn’t worth the financial burden. 

As millions of Americans gear up to begin making monthly payments on their student loans again in 2023, many have turned a critical eye toward the value of financing higher education and the growing cost to obtain a college degree. 

A new Morning Consult survey finds that Americans are more divided on the value of four-year schools, and more than a third of people with student loans believe that taking on debt to finance a degree was not worth it. 

Ambivalence about the value of for-profit and public universities may be giving community colleges and vocational programs an edge when it comes to perceived value, the survey suggests. Among those who said they expect to apply for student loans in the next 10 years, 78% said community and two-year colleges were a good value, while 75% said the same about vocational and professional certification programs. 

Those higher levels of perceived value from future student loan-holders mirror attitudes of the general public when it comes to secondary education.

The Public Views Vocational Programs, Community Colleges as the Best Values in Higher Education

Respondents were asked if they thought the following types of higher education are a good value:
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Survey conducted Aug. 27-28, 2022, among a representative sample of 4,420 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-1 percentage point. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Soaring tuition costs and a crackdown on for-profit fraud may have attendees wondering if college is a financially savvy investment

Americans’ views of for-profit universities come amid a wave of bankruptcies and closures in recent years, and in some high-profile instances, massive debt forgiveness for defrauded students. Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced $5.8 billion in loan forgiveness for attendees of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges, a chain that was accused of misleading students about their job prospects and earning potential. Another $500 million in debt was erased for former ITT Tech students for similar reasons. 

While headlines about defrauded students at these now-defunct colleges may have swayed public opinion on the for-profit industry, public universities haven’t escaped scrutiny. As the Department of Education implements its plan to cancel at least $10,000 in student loans for borrowers — currently estimated to cost taxpayers more than $400 billion over 30 years — many are asking why a public four-year college education continues to cost so much, and if it’s worth it. 

When asked for comment, the Association of American Universities referred to a recent blog post by the group’s president, Barbara Snyder, who pushed back against criticism of public university tuition costs: “To hear many commentators opine, one would think that millions of Americans were burdened with massive amounts of student debt because our top institutions have let the costs of an undergraduate education spiral wildly out of control while simply sitting on piles of endowment cash,” she wrote.  

Snyder argued that most students don’t pay the real price of tuition at public research universities as it is, noting that undergraduate students at public and private AAU-member universities received $2.23 billion in university-provided grants and scholarships, while utilizing $416 million in federal loans in 2019-20. She also wrote that 3 out of 5 graduates of public and private nonprofit universities graduate with debt, compared with 2 in 5 alumni from AAU-member universities. 

The share of Americans who said attending an out-of-state public university is a good value was smaller compared to those who said the same about obtaining an in-state public university undergraduate degree (40% vs. 52%). 

Rahul Choudaha, managing director of higher education research at Morning Consult, said one explanation for the lower opinion of the value of out-of-state public schools could be the rapid rate of increase in tuition fees.

“Since the Great Recession, many public universities have focused on increasing the share of out-of-state students and the tuition fees charged to them,” Choudaha said, noting that the average out-of-state undergraduate tuition rate at the University of California system for 2021 jumped to more than $43,000 per year. That yearly tuition is up from nearly $25,000 per year for out-of-state students in the 2005-06 school year. 

Choudaha also noted that public universities saw lower levels of trust in Morning Consult’s most recent ranking of 135 research universities: the average net trust for public universities was 24.9 compared to 26.5 for private universities. 

“This level of trust among public universities is alarming because their lower tuition fees than private universities and their mission to serve the public good haven't helped them earn public trust,” he said.

Millennials remain more skeptical of their choice to finance education, as are graduates of community and two-year colleges 

While a majority of Americans with student loans continue to say that being able to attend college was worth taking on debt, more than a third indicated that they have qualms about their decision. Millennials have continued to express more pessimistic attitudes over the past three years: In August, 25% said getting a college degree was “definitely” not worth taking on student loan debt, compared with 19% who said the same before the pandemic. 

Nearly 2 in 5 Student Loan Borrowers Say Taking on Debt Wasn’t Worth It

Respondents with student loans were asked if taking out those loans was worth it to attend college
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Surveys conducted March 13-17, 2019, Sept. 8-10, 2020, and Aug. 27-28, 2022, among representative samples of 1,326, 1,333, and 1,610 U.S. adults, respectively, with unweighted margins of error of +/- 3, +/- 3 and +/- 2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Gen Z respondents who took out student loans are either fresh out of college or still in school, but so far the demographic is more bullish than their millennial counterparts on the value of attending college. Per the survey, 65% of Gen Zers said taking on the debt was worth attending college, while 28% said it was not. (The margin of error for the Gen Z sample is 8 percentage points). 

While community college, two-year college and vocational training were the most likely higher education options to be seen as a good value, there may be a gap between the general public’s perception and actual outcomes: While 66% of adults overall indicated that they perceive community or two-year colleges to be a good value, 64% of those who graduated from such institutions said that taking on debt to finance their education was not worth it. 

Amanda Jacobson Snyder previously worked at Morning Consult as a data reporter covering finance.

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