A majority of Generation Z (83%) in the U.S. say that a college education today is “very important” or “fairly important,” according to new data from the Gallup and Walton Family Foundation-State of American Youth Survey. Thirty-nine percent of Gen Z, defined for this study as people aged 12 to 26, think a college education is very important.
This favorable perception of higher education among Gen Z is noteworthy given that, among U.S. adults more generally, concern about college affordability remains high and confidence in higher education is low. In fact, confidence in higher education as a U.S. institution has dropped 21 percentage points since 2015.
Within the Gen Z cohort, the youngest youth are slightly more likely than their older counterparts to rate a college education as important. Eighty-seven percent of youth aged 12 to 15 deem a college education very or fairly important, compared with 80% of 16- to 18-year-olds, 85% of 19- to 21-year-olds and 82% of 22- to 26-year-olds.
The oldest members of Gen Z, aged 22 to 26 -- who are the most likely within this generation to have finished an undergraduate degree -- are the least likely to rate a college education as very important. Prior Gallup research from 2019 found that while most adults view a college education as important overall, younger Americans, particularly those under 30, are the least likely across generations to view a college education as very important.
The latest findings are based on a Gallup Panel web survey, conducted April 24 to May 8, 2023, with 3,114 U.S. youth aged 12 to 26.
Female, Democratic, Black Gen Z View College Education as More Important
Female members of Gen Z (87%) are more likely than males (80%) to believe a college education is very or fairly important.
The vast majority of the adult Gen Z group who identify as Democrats believe a college education is important (93%), compared with 75% of Republicans and 82% of independents in the same age range. This is largely consistent with the partisan patterns found among U.S. adults aged 18 and older in 2019 -- when 62% of Democrats said a college education is very important, compared with 50% of independents and 41% of Republicans.
Black (87%) and Hispanic (85%) Gen Z members, who remain underrepresented on college campuses, are more likely than White Gen Z members (81%) to say a college education is important. These differences in importance by race/ethnicity are consistent with Gallup data on U.S. adults from 2013 and 2019, which showed Black and Hispanic adults are more likely than White adults to view a college education as very important.
Younger Gen Z Feel Pressured by Parents to Attend College
A majority of the youngest members of Gen Z -- those who are still enrolled in K-12 schools -- view a college education as important (85%), and nearly two-thirds (62%) intend to pursue a degree after high school. This interest in higher education may in part relate to the messaging about college from their parents.
More than half of Gen Z K-12 students (55%) report feeling pressured “a lot” or “some” by their parents to get into a good college. Students who say higher education is very important are nearly five times more likely than those who say it is “not too important” to feel pressure from their parents (29% vs. 6%, respectively).
That Gen Z youth feel pressure to attend college is perhaps not surprising, given 73% of their parents report wanting their student to pursue a two- or four-year college degree immediately after high school. Parents are encouraging their children to pursue a college degree despite having low confidence in higher education as an institution: 39% of U.S. adults aged 35 to 54 report having a “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Parents may thus see the long-term value in a college degree even if they have concerns with the current state of the higher education sector.
Half of College-Bound Gen Z Youth Believe They Can Afford College
Fifty-three percent of Gen Z K-12 students who want to pursue a college degree believe they will be able to afford it. Concerns about college affordability hold across demographic subgroups, including by age, gender and race/ethnicity.
Notably, Black K-12 youth interested in pursuing a college education (39%) are less likely than their Hispanic (56%) and White counterparts (57%) to strongly agree or agree that they can afford college. Concerns about affordability could contribute to why Black students have the lowest rate of immediate college enrollment after high school of any racial or ethnic group. The U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences found that in 2020, 54% of Black students enrolled in college immediately after high school, compared with 67% of White students and 60% of Hispanic students. Furthermore, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Completing College 2022 report, Black students have the lowest college completion rates.
Perceptions of the importance and affordability of postsecondary education among Gen Z members are particularly critical given the challenges facing the higher education sector -- namely, declining enrollments and stagnating graduation rates.
Enrollments were consistently declining across all institutional sectors long before the pandemic, and while the rate of decline has stabilized for many institutions, rates among two-year institutions in particular continue to decline. The looming “enrollment cliff” brought about by projected declines in the size of the college-aged population means that enrollment rates will, likely at best, remain stagnant -- and, at worst, decline.
Graduation rates are also a concern, as the national college completion rate has stalled. The six-year overall completion rate for the fall 2016 entering cohort was 62.3% -- essentially unchanged from the previous year’s cohort, according to the Completing College report. Graduation rates for public two-year colleges -- which serve over 40% of all undergraduates nationally -- remain especially low at 43.1%.
The future of higher education in the U.S. is highly contingent on how youth today view both the importance of a college degree and their ability to successfully access -- and complete -- degree programs. While this research highlights that most youth today think college is important, it illuminates significant concern among Gen Z about college affordability. Research consistently shows that uncertainty about how to pay for college hinders students from pursuing postsecondary education -- and completing a degree once they start it -- even though earnings and long-term outcomes for those with a postsecondary credential remain strong. Much work remains to ensure that a college education is financially attainable for youth today and that youth interested in pursuing a college pathway have the resources to make informed decisions about investing in a college education.
Learn more from the Gallup and Walton Family Foundation-State of American Youth Survey.
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