Students are deeply concerned about college costs and the availability of jobs—but even so, more people than ever are interested in higher education. That’s the news from Gallup’s State of Higher Education 2024 report—and the fact that both those can be true says a lot about higher education in these turbulent times.

Yes, there are looming concerns about the price of higher ed. But Gallup’s report shows that 94% of adults—the highest that the study has recorded—say some kind of post-high school credential, from a college degree to a certificate or industry certification, is very valuable.

Colleges and universities have reported the first increase in undergraduate enrollment since

the onset of the COVID pandemic. Gallup’s survey of 14,000 adults shows that Americans overwhelmingly agree that education beyond high school, especially a four-year college degree, is important in building a good career.

Let’s be clear on our terms, though. For example, it’s best to use “post-high school credentials” to refer to all high-quality degrees, industry certificates, and certifications. The experts define “high-quality” very specifically, but in shorthand, these are credentials that lead to a job that provides a living wage and benefits.

That broader view of higher education held by many of us helps explain the 94% support, the Gallup report said:

“This heightened interest is partially driven by an increasing openness to alternative pathways, such as industry certifications and certificates, and a continued belief that a degree or credential will increase an individual’s salary, chances of promotion, and competitiveness in the job market,” the report said. “Many prospective students are also searching for flexible programs in the form of remote instruction, schedules more conducive to working learners or expedited time to complete.”

It’s also helpful to get more specific about the cost of one of those post-high school options, college. Sticker prices make the news—like the recent headline: “College Will Cost Up To $95,000 This Fall.” But few students actually pay that much. In fact, most students are in public universities or community colleges, where the cost of attendance is far below the headline-making sticker prices at the most expensive schools. The Hechinger Report has looked at this and created the “Tuition Tracker” tool to show the real prices people are likely to pay across the country—in effect, how to get the best deal for the degree you’re looking for.

So, Americans believe in college, but they’re anxious—and not just about price. They worry about the value of degrees, often considering non-monetary costs—the time and effort needed to earn a credential.

Students are right to ask what they’ll get in return—both in money and life fulfillment. But what we’re hearing from many is that they’re not only dealing with financial concerns, but also face intense stress, academic preparedness challenges, and the weight of family and work obligations. In fact, 60 percent of currently enrolled students say they’ve considered dropping out because of emotional stress or mental health concerns.

In response, more schools are offering mental health programs, food pantries and other supports designed to help people stay in school. Schools are recognizing that today’s students are often very different from those of the past. In the minds of many, “college student” still means a recent high school graduate who lives on campus and attends full-time with few other responsibilities. In reality, today’s students are often older and have jobs, families, and financial limitations that make full-time schooling difficult—often impossible. Most work while supporting themselves, and nearly half are first-generation collegegoers.

We need a learning system that responds to those realities, one that seamlessly combines education and training, acknowledging the diverse learning requirements of today’s workforce, wherever and however they may occur. Yes, today’s workers need post-high school education—but that need doesn’t end with the first credential. With jobs constantly changing, workers will need to reskill and upskill regularly—and the system must meet that need.

As if the actual challenges facing today’s students weren’t enough, many also face the skepticism of those around them. In today’s economy, they are told, plenty of good jobs require no college, so why go?

There’s a risk in that view, however. As this Hechinger report tells us, individuals without a post-high school education earn substantially less, face higher unemployment rates, and are more likely to live in poverty. They more often suffer from depression and have shorter lifespans with increased reliance on government assistance. Those without any credentials beyond high school have higher divorce rates and are less likely to vote or volunteer. They also tend to be more susceptible to authoritarian ideologies that pose a threat to democracy.

I think most people understand that education provides a range of benefits—even those who might balk at the cost or question its value or relevance. Maybe that’s why, as Gallup found, that just over half of currently unenrolled adults without credentials beyond high school say they are likely to enroll in higher education of some kind in the next five years. And the biggest area of increase? Interest in industry certifications has gone up nine percentage points since 2021.

Yes, Americans can malign and embrace higher education at the same time. We live in a complex society, after all, buffeted by technological and societal change. Life success in all its forms is the primary concern for many of us. It’s no surprise, then, that there are conflicting emotions about something so central to our identity—individually and as a society.

In fact, we Americans—we humans—malign and embrace many things simultaneously: free speech … religious faith … the democratic process … and even love. Would any of us be better off without any of these? Certainly not.

In my view—and in the view of most Americans—the same can be said of higher education.

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