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Survey: Second-guessing Often Accompanies Degrees

More than half of adults in the U.S. would change at least one aspect of their higher education experience, according to a new survey from Gallup and the Strada Education Network. Common regrets were choice of institution and major or field of study. Comparatively, relatively few regretted their degree type.

The survey interviewed 90,000 randomly sampled U.S. adults from age 18 to 65, covering people of all educational backgrounds, from those with less than a high school diploma to those with a postgraduate degree, shedding light on how students perceive the value of their education.

Brandon Busteed is executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup.Brandon Busteed is executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup.

While the higher ed landscape is home to a diverse array of institutions of all types and categories, too often institutions do not systematically track the career outcomes of graduates, according to Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup.

“This is a voice that’s missing — and in many ways tragically missing — from the landscape of what we do and don’t know about higher ed,” Busteed said at the Education Writers Association (EWA) meeting on Thursday.

Adults least likely to regret their choices are graduates in the STEM fields, vocational and technical education, and post-graduates. These three types of graduates share a certain commonality, according to Carol D’Amico, executive vice president of mission advancement and philanthropy at Strada.

“They attended with a purpose,” D’Amico said. “They had a plan. They had a path they were going to go down.”

Across degree types, 36 percent of all adults said that they would choose another major or field of study and 28 percent said they would choose another institution. Only 12 percent said they would choose another degree type. Intriguingly, graduates with a bachelor’s who were age 30 or older were less likely to regret their choice of field of study than younger graduates.

The cost of a college degree has risen dramatically in recent years, causing more students to take on debt in their pursuit of a college education. Students and graduates have accumulated a total of $1.3 trillion in student loans from the federal government alone. In other words, choosing a college degree has never been a more weighty decision.

Adults with student loan debt are more likely to say that they would make a different choice about their education given the chance, with the majority expressing dissatisfaction about their choice of an institution. However, only 14 percent of adults who have at least some student loan debt said that they would change their degree if given the chance.

Income after attaining a degree also impacts graduates’ perception of their educational choices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, graduates who earn less are more likely to say that they regretted some of their choices, but even high earners express some doubts. Nearly a third of graduates who earn $250,000 or more said that they would change their major.

Higher ed might benefit from the same sort of analysis that other industry sectors, such as retail and the service industry, frequently apply to their own consumers, according to D’Amico.

“If you think about what consumer insights have done in other sectors, you can begin to understand the potential and the power of consumer insights if applied to higher education,” D’Amico said. “We know that in healthcare there were many transformations made in practices in hospitals when they started doing a lot of consumer surveys.”

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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