UNC System alumni survey graphic

As time goes by, fewer graduates of UNC System schools think their time in college was worth it. 

I have a couple more thoughts on the UNC System alumni survey that came out earlier this month. Here’s my story, and here’s the actual survey in all of its PDF glory.

First: A&T broke out its own results from the survey. Not surprisingly if you’ve ever been within 50 miles of the Greatest Homecoming on Earth, A&T alums think pretty highly of their college experience. Large majorities of Aggie alums say their A&T education was worth the cost and would recommend the school to friends and family. Click here for A&T-specific results.

Second: The report was all-around rosy for the UNC System except for this one graph on page 12 of the report. That graphic also appears at the top of this blog post.

If you can’t find either the report or the graphic, here’s what I mean: 85 percent of those who graduated in the 1940s and 1950s say their education was worth the cost. Among graduates from the 1980s, 73 percent said school was worth it. The affirmative answer drops to 56 percent for graduates from the 2000s and to 46 percent for graduates from this decade. The national numbers are even worse.

Gallup, which did the survey for the UNC System, suggests that college experiences affect this value proposition. Specifically, Gallup says that college grads who say their professors supported and motivated them are more likely to say that college was worth it. But unless you think that college professors have become more aloof and less helpful over the last 70 years — anecdotally, I’d say it’s the — the 40-point drop-off between the oldest and youngest living alums suggests that something else is up.

That “something else” might be some combination of college prices, debt and wages.

It’s no secret that the price of college continues to rise. The sticker price is the thing that gets all the attention, never mind that not too many folks will pay anywhere close to $80,000 to attend, say, Duke next year. The net price after grants and scholarships gives a more accurate picture. Since 1998, according to The College Board, the net cost of tuition, fees, room and board at public universities has risen nearly 70 percent to almost $15,000 annually. At private colleges over that same period, the net price has gone up 26 percent to a little over $27,000 a year.

To pay these higher prices — no, you can’t work your way through college like folks used to do — people are taking out bigger loans. Over the past couple of decades, the average amount in federal loans that students are borrowing hasn’t changed all that much. The latest report from the Project on Student Debt puts the national average debt at graduation for the class of 2017 at $28,650. The report notes that two-thirds of graduates that year borrowed money for school and also highlights wide ranges in borrowing between schools and states. 

Parents, meanwhile, seem to bearing the brunt of these higher prices. Over the past 25 years, according to the College Board (here and here), the average amount that families have borrowed through the Parent PLUS program has ballooned by nearly 75 percent. The average Parent PLUS borrower owes more than $16,000.

And then there are wages. As this new Bloomberg story points out, the increase in college graduates means a bachelor’s degree doesn’t come with a wage premium it once did. Average annual wages (in constant dollars) for recent college graduates have actually declined over three decades.

The Bloomberg story, citing a Federal Reserve survey from a week earlier, finds that most college grads think they’re doing OK financially. But it also sees the same generational slump in college enthusiasm that the UNC System survey found. Among the 60-plus age group, 80 percent say that college was worth it. Among the 18-to-29s, only 52 percent say the same.

That’s what a growing generational crisis of confidence in higher education looks like. That might be why the Bloomberg story offers up this prediction: “The brewing anxiety may burst into the open during the 2020 U.S. election campaign.”

Have something to say about the blog post above? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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