skip to main content
College Is Worth It, But Only If We Make the Most of It

College Is Worth It, But Only If We Make the Most of It

by Brandon Busteed

There have been plenty of headlines in the news about rising college costs and the implications of Americans borrowing more than $1 trillion in student loans to pay for it. The debate has primarily focused on the financial and economic consequences of these loans -- such as worries about default rates, what it means for the housing market if a generation of college graduates delays buying homes, and the en vogue question: "Is college worth it?" So far, economists and pundits have answered with an emphatic "yes" to college being worth it, citing the average lifetime earnings of college graduates compared with those without a degree. Using that math, the answer may be right. But what if we've been asking the wrong questions and using the wrong equations to get this answer?

Recent findings from the Gallup-Purdue Index -- a massive study of more than 30,000 college graduates in the U.S. -- show that few graduates are having experiences in college that are strongly linked to the long-term outcomes that matter most: a great career and great life afterward. Perhaps we should be asking a different question altogether -- to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy's famous call-to-action: "Ask not what college can do for you, but what you can do for (or in) college."

The problem with college today is that we've heaped massive expectations upon it. It's the supposed ticket to a better future and the American Dream. Parents and students are often willing to make huge sacrifices to get a college degree, because we've all believed -- without any doubt -- that it's the path to success. And worst of all -- thanks to an increasingly consumer-driven mindset about higher education -- we have created the expectation that it's an automatic path at that. When you pay good money, you expect a good grade and a good degree. We put more emphasis on getting into college than on what students should do to make the most of their experience while enrolled.

And as we've learned from the Gallup-Purdue Index findings, when it comes to your engagement in work and well-being in life after college, what matters most is how you do it, not where you go. The type of institution, whether it is prestigious, private, or highly-selective, doesn't matter. What matters a lot is having at least one professor who makes you excited about learning, professors who care about you as a person, and a mentor who encourages your goals and dreams. Graduates who "strongly agree" that they had all three of these experiences in college double their odds of being engaged in their work and of thriving in their overall well-being. Yet only 14% of all graduates strongly agree that they had all three of these important college experiences. And when it comes to the one experience we found to be most relevant to graduates' long-term success in life and work -- having a mentor in college -- eight out of 10 graduates failed to get this. How you do college is more important than where you go. And what we've learned most recently about student loan debt furthers the case.

Graduates with higher amounts of student loan debt are less likely to be thriving in their overall well-being after college, and for much longer than many of us would have guessed. For younger graduates who got their diplomas between 2000 and 2014, those with more than $25,000 in student loan debt are worse off on all elements of their well-being -- purpose, social, physical, community and financial -- compared with their loan-free counterparts. In other words, high loan debt may negatively affect all aspects of well-being for as long as 15 years. Those who graduated between 1990 and 1999 and who took out more than $50,000 in student loans are worse off on three elements of their well-being -- purpose, physical, and financial -- for as long as 25 years after graduation. In simple terms, graduating from college with as little debt as possible and making the most of the experience may be the keys to making college "worth it."

This new research tells us there is much more we can all be doing to improve the efficacy and ROI of college. Students can't just rest on their laurels after getting into college, but they must realize the hard work has just begun. College won't be the magic bullet they hope for, unless they take full advantage of it by finding great professors and mentors, working on long-term projects, finding internships that apply what they are learning, and being extremely involved in an extra-curricular activity. Parents need to look for these attributes in a college, rather than the prestige of the brand or the fancy buildings and dining halls on campus. And they can't expect these things to just happen to their child; they need to help emphasize to their child that it's what they do in college that matters.

College leaders, faculty, and staff need to embrace a new reality. It's no longer assumed that college is the best path to a great job and a great life. Higher education institutions need to constantly prove it now. There's no better way to do that than to understand how the fruits of its labor -- graduates -- are doing in the long run in their careers and lives. A diploma isn't worth much if it doesn't lead to a good job. And college -- despite everything we've been raised to believe -- is not the ticket to a good life…unless students make the most of it.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030