The results are in: post-secondary study is worth it

University and college graduates have better health, vote in higher numbers, are more likely to discuss politics with friends or family, and work in jobs that fit their talents and interests, says a new survey conducted by the Gallup organisation and published by the Lumina Foundation (LF), an NGO based in Indianapolis, Indiana, that works to increase opportunities for access and success in tertiary education for all Americans.

The web-based study, entitled Education for What?, was conducted in November 2022. Gallup surveyed more than 14,054 American adults on 52 outcomes including “US elections are mostly free and fair”, and in seven categories including “Character”, “Health and Wellbeing”, “Civic Participation” and “Social Capital.” According to the report, educational attainment has a “meaningful statistical relationship” with 50 of them.

The study was published against the backdrop of growing doubts about the worth of and trust in American higher education.

In 2011 the Pew Research Center reported that even though 75% of Americans believed that the cost of higher education was putting it beyond reach, 86% of Americans believed a college education was a good personal investment.

By contrast, earlier this year a study released by New America, a think tank based in Washington DC, found that 66% of respondents felt they could find good jobs with only a high school diploma. This past July Gallup reported that 42% of respondents had either “Some” or “Very Little” faith in American higher education.

And, more recently, on 5 September, as college and university classes began across the country, The New York Times published a long article titled “Americans are losing faith in the value of college. Whose fault is that?” and subtitled: “For most people, the new economics of higher ed make going to college a risky bet”.

Courtney Brown, the LF’s vice-president of impact and planning, says: “The reason why we did this study is because more and more people are questioning the value of post-secondary education. There have been a lot of ‘one-off’ studies about the positive impact of post-secondary education. But no one has ever pulled all the different variables together, by increments and years of education, to see what the impact is beyond financial outcomes.

“The main outcome from this study is that there are tremendous benefits from post-secondary education in so many different dimensions of people’s lives.”

Work satisfaction

For every level an individual achieves into post-secondary education, their belief that their work fits their interests and talents rises by at least seven percentage points: from 58% for those with no post-secondary education to 69% for those with some and from 80% for those with bachelor degrees to 87% for holders of graduate degrees, says the study.

Curiously, however, there is no concomitant rise in job satisfaction: 47% of respondents with no post-secondary reported being satisfied with their jobs while 49% of those with advanced degrees did. Only 37% of holders of associate bachelor (AB) degrees, typically two- or three-year degrees offered at community colleges, report being satisfied with their jobs.

Brown was not surprised at the dissatisfaction of AB holders because, she says, they “may not be quality degrees and aren’t leading to good jobs”. (A disproportionate number of ABs are granted by for-profit colleges, a sector bedevilled with predatory recruitment and poor levels of education.)

After noting that qualitative research (for example, interviews) would help in understanding the other dissatisfaction rates, Brown added that high rates of dissatisfaction among BA and graduate degree holders may be because younger workers are more dissatisfied with working conditions or their supervisors than are older workers.

Holders of graduate degrees are 22% more likely than individuals with no post-secondary education (65% to 43%) to rate their health excellent or good, with AB holders almost precisely in the middle at 55%.

However, there is little significant difference among people in each of the five education levels when it comes to having been diagnosed for depression: 29% of individuals with some post-secondary and AB holders reported having been so diagnosed while 23% of individuals with only post-secondary reported the same.

“The reason for the similar responses,” says Brown, “is that depression is a medical condition that isn’t chosen by you. People with degrees and, hence, better jobs, have more access to care, but just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you will have a higher rate of depression.”

Political literacy

In a number of areas, the study showed that increased education is tied to huge outcomes differentials.

One area is voting. Fully 92% of individuals with graduate degrees voted in the 2020 presidential election won by Joe Biden. For every level of education above high school, which saw a 59% voter participation rate, the increase is notable. Individuals with some post-secondary education voted at a rate of 75%, AB holders at a rate of 79% and BA holders at a rate of 87%.

Belief that American elections are free and fair was also closely tied to education. 70% of holders of graduate degrees believed this, while the figures declined for each of the other groups to 64%, 52%, 49% and, finally, 47% for individuals with no post-secondary degree.

These figures accord with other surveys, such as a CNN survey released on 3 August: “CNN Poll: Percentage of Republicans who think Biden’s 2020 win was illegitimate ticks back up near 70%” (43% of voters are registered Republicans).

Brown, who finds these figures alarming, especially for people with no post-secondary education, suspects that the large percentage of individuals who do not have confidence in America’s elections is linked to being unable to look at data, research and understand how the electoral process works.

“I would say that the more educated you are, the more likely you’re going to be able to look at research, to look at data and understand that the elections are mostly free and fair. Those that don’t have access to that data or aren’t able to interpret or understand it, may be swayed by just words and what their leaders are telling them,” she says, without naming the proverbial elephant in the room, former President Donald J Trump and his acolytes.

Brown’s analysis may also explain both the 30-percentage point difference between holders of graduate degrees and those with no post-secondary education, as well as the increase recorded for each level of education to the question about whether you “Discuss politics with friends/family monthly”. From a high of 74% of graduate degree holders saying they do, the figures decline to 67%, 59%, 56% and 44% for individuals with no post-secondary education.

The 10-percentage point difference between holders of graduate degrees and those with no post-secondary education – 70% to 60% – who are “Often discouraged or saddened by things outside my control” may not be on the order of magnitude of other differences, but it tells us a great deal about the life-horizon expectations of the two groups.

“To take a work example,” Brown says, “people that have more education tend to have jobs where they have more agency and more purpose; they can make decisions at their jobs. And, so when they can’t make decisions or those decisions don’t work, that’s probably more likely to bother them. People who don’t have jobs where they can make decisions or don’t have the opportunities to control things in their jobs or lives, they’re more used to it” and, thus are less surprised or saddened.

The impact of race

There are only four questions that indicate answers by race or ethnicity. One asks about labour force participation between black and “All US adults”.

Amongst individuals with no post-secondary education, blacks have a slightly lower participation rate: 55% of all adult males vs 53% of blacks. By contrast, blacks with ABs report a 77% participation rate vs 73% for all US adults. Amongst individuals with graduate degrees, the differential is six percentage points (80% to 74%).

When Brown was asked if at the upper end of the employment and education spectrum we are seeing evidence of American racist attitudes that blacks and other minorities have to be more qualified for a position than their white peers, she answered “Yes”.

“Over and over again, research has shown that people of colour (and women) need more education to get better jobs than do people who have been more privileged and can get jobs without those qualifications. So, it’s no surprise to me that we are seeing this with people of colour – that having that credential is even more important if you’re a person of colour (or female),” she said.

Towards the end of the study, there is a chart titled, “Belief in selected positive outcomes that result from a more educated society, by race and ethnicity”.

50% of blacks and 44% of Hispanics agreed that a more educated society would have better mental health, while only 37% of white adults believe this. Since blacks and Hispanics are overrepresented in jobs that do not have union benefits that pay for psychological counselling, this differential, a 30 percentage point difference between blacks and whites, is what might be termed an aspirational difference.

Brown theorised that “black and Hispanic Americans have been denied opportunities for education and access to these resources [because of lack of access to unionised jobs] and believe that access to them will lead to access to mental health supports”.

In each of the two other categories, there is the same statistical slope: 53% to 49% to 43% for belief that education will lead to “A more cooperative society” and 43% to 38% to 32% for “Government representatives work in the best interests of society”.

The value of diversity

Perhaps the most surprising finding in the Education for What? survey is in the “Social capital behaviours and attitudes, by education level” chart.

Anyone who reads American news or watches CNN or Fox News would come away with the impression that the country is irretrievably riven, especially along racial, religious and gender and/or sexual presentation lines. And yet, when asked if you “Get along with others regardless of their background, such as their race, religion or sexual orientation”, the vast majority of Americans answered that they do.

The statistics also point to how education and/or being on a campus which contains a diverse student body affects beliefs. While 87% of people without any college education answered that they get along with diverse people, that figure climbed four percentage points for those with some post-secondary experience and to 92% for holders of AB degrees. A four-year degree accounted for another two-percentage point rise as did a graduate degree, so that 96% of holders of graduate degrees answered that they get along with diverse people.

“This speaks to the importance of diversity in our institutions. It shows the importance of being with people who don’t look like you or have a different perspective than you do. Sitting next to them in class, which the data shows gives you a better understanding of different people, and your experience shows you are able to get along with them, indicates the importance of diversity,” says Brown.