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With the student loan crisis gaining ground as a key issue in the 2020 presidential race, a new CNBC and Acorns survey has found that a majority of Americans now believe the value of a college education is inextricably tied to whether they have to go into debt to pay for it.
Some 58% of consumers polled earlier this month said that college is worth the money — but not if it means taking on too much debt. Only about 1 in 5 of the survey’s 2,800 respondents believe that college is worth the price, even if it means borrowing heavily, and nearly as many (18%) said that college is not worth the money, period. That number jumped to 24% among those in the 35- to 44-year-old age group.
The Invest in You Spending Survey was conducted by CNBC and Acorns in partnership with SurveyMonkey from June 17–20. A diverse group of men and women were polled across the country, ranging in ages from 18 to over 65. Of the total, 1,498 had a college or graduate degree.
Experts say the results reflect a change in attitude toward higher education by families, due to sharply rising costs. Although the rate of growth has moderated lately, tuition increases are still averaging two to three percentage points above inflation, keeping overall costs high: According to The College Board, over the past three decades, tuition and fees at private four-year institutions have more than doubled, to $35,830, for the 2018–19 academic year after adjusting for inflation ($48,510 including room and board), and they’ve tripled at state schools, to $10,370.
At the Ivy leagues the costs are exorbitant. At Harvard the total annual cost of attendance is now $67,580; next year at Princeton it will be $73,450.
Meanwhile, families have increasingly turned to federal and private loans to help foot the bills, pushing outstanding student debt to a stunning $1.6 trillion. Among the almost 70% of students who borrow for school, the typical senior now graduates with nearly $30,000 in debt.
Small wonder, then, that confidence in higher education has dropped sharply in the U.S. since 2015, according to an annual survey by Gallup — more so than for any other U.S. institution measured. Gallop attributes the decline largely to the challenge of affordability.
“Parents and students need to think about college as a financial decision, not just an educational one,” says Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli, author of “Will College Pay Off?”
“It’s an expensive undertaking, with high-stakes consequences if it doesn’t work out,” he said.
Weighing the risks and rewards
Perhaps the biggest risk: not graduating. Only about 60% of undergraduates earn a degree in six years, and just 40% cross the finish line in the traditional four-year time span.
Additional years in school add to the costs and subtract years in the workforce earning income. Plus, workers who attend college but never get their degree typically make only modestly more over the
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