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New Pew Research Surveys Question Value of College

Two new national surveys released yesterday by the Pew Research Center reflect discontent among families and administrators about the value and quality of a college education.

Just 5 percent of the public says students get excellent value for the money they spend on college, according to an accompanying report, Is College Worth It? College Presidents, Public Assess Value, Quality and Mission of Higher Education. Some 35 percent say they receive good value; 42 percent say only fair; and 15 percent say its a poor return on their investment.

Near three-quarters of the public surveyed say most people cannot afford to pay for a college education. This is up from 1985, when just six-in-10 Americans felt that way. The debt that students take on for college has lasting consequences. Among all survey respondents who took out college loans and are no longer in school, about 48 percent say that paying back the loan has made it harder to make ends meet.

At the same time, 86 percent of college graduates say getting a degree was a good investment for them personally, the telephone survey by Pew found. As in a study released last week by the American Institutes for Research that chronicled a lifetime earnings advantage of $250,000 to $500,000 with a bachelor's degree, the Pew survey shows the public is aware of the income boost as well. Adults with a college degree asked by Pew estimated, on average, that they earn $20,000 a year more by virtue of having gotten that degree.

A separate online survey of college presidents by Pew in association with The Chronicle of Higher Education reflects less concern about the affordability, but widespread skepticism about the quality of education on campuses. Only 19 percent of college presidents say they believe that the U.S. system of higher education is the best in the world. And, 7 percent say they think it will be the best in the world in a decade.

Some blame high schools. Of the college presidents surveyed by Pew, 58 percent say public high schools are doing a worse job of preparing students for college now than they did a decade ago, and just 6 percent say they are doing better. In addition, most college presidents—52 percent—say college students today study less than their predecessors did a decade ago, while just 7 percent say they study more.

The public survey of 2,142 individuals was conducted by landline and cellular telephone in March 2011. The survey of college presidents was done online in March and April of this year among leaders of 1,055 two-year and four-year private, public, and for-profit colleges and universities with 500 or more students enrolled.

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