These are odd days for American higher education.

More and more Americans doubt the value of going beyond high school. From 2016 to 2022, the proportion of young Americans choosing to continue their education after graduating from high school dropped significantly—from 70 percent to 62 percent.

Those who doubt the value of postsecondary schooling have legitimate concerns. They worry that a college education is too expensive and that the doors to too many good schools remain locked to students who lack the “right” qualifications or connections. Even though they understand that a college credential would enhance their future, they wonder whether taking on debt to finance such schooling would delay or even abort their launch into those careers.

Again, justified worries.

But a new report by Gallup and Lumina Foundation, “Education for What?” reveals that we may be defining higher education’s value too narrowly. The report provides powerful evidence that Americans with college-level learning—even those who haven’t earned a degree—benefit in ways beyond enhanced earning power.

So do their communities and this country.

The Gallup/Lumina report studied 52 different outcomes in seven broad categories—including character, cognitive ability, civic engagement and, of course, work and income.

In 50 of the 52 outcomes, those who continued their education beyond high school experienced greater satisfaction.

In only one outcome—the one in which people responded to the statement “I am often discouraged or saddened by things outside of my control”—did respondents with less education fare better than those with more schooling.

Sixty percent of those with no post-high school education agreed with that prompt. Those with some postsecondary schooling came in at 62 percent. Those with associate degrees were at 65 percent, while those with bachelor’s and graduate degrees both landed at 70 percent.

That, though, was the only category in which post-high school learning failed to improve respondents’ life outcomes. In every other area—physical and mental health, community involvement, the ability to live with and get along with others, and plain, old-fashioned grit—pursuing an education beyond high school made people’s lives better.

And, again, it also improved their communities.

For example, the Gallup/Lumina study reports that those with graduate degrees are more than three times more likely to volunteer than those with no postsecondary education—47 percent to 14 percent. Those with bachelor’s degrees show up at 38 percent.

The numbers are just as dramatic for donating to charity. Those with graduate degrees are twice as likely to give to charities as those who don’t continue past high school—77 percent to 38 percent. Those with bachelor’s and associate degrees chart at 67 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

The study also revealed that schooling bolsters determination in achieving life goals.

Nearly nine out of 10 of those with graduate degrees said that they generally succeeded when they decided to do something. The numbers for those with bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, some postsecondary education, and high-school degrees were 85 percent, 84 percent, 81 percent, and 78 percent.

Education also seems to encourage persistence. In answer to the prompt “Some of my achievements have taken years of preparation,” 57 percent of those with no post-high school education concurred. The numbers climbed for every level of educational attainment, topping out at 94 percent for those with graduate degrees.

Just as dramatic were the findings that higher education can help historically marginalized or disenfranchised Americans break through societal barriers.

For example, among Black adults with no postsecondary education, the rate of labor force participation—that is, the percentage of those who are employed or are actively looking for work—is less than that among the population at large. But, starting with those who have associate degrees, the labor participation rate for Black Americans is higher than the national average.

This is important. Too often, the value of a college education is expressed solely in dollars and cents. Money matters, of course, and those numbers are represented in the study: Americans with graduate degrees have incomes more than triple those of workers with only a high school diploma; bachelor’s degree holders, more than double.

But it’s about more than money.

If there is an overarching theme to these findings, it is this: Education beyond high school helps people take ownership of their lives—and find satisfaction in living them.

Will this study bring an end to our national discussion about the value of college? No—and it shouldn’t. The discussion itself is important. Higher education leaders must engage in it, learn from it, and respond to it thoughtfully.

What the study can do is inform that conversation. It can expand our thinking about the value—and real purpose—of education while we determine how to make more opportunities available for more people.

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