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Robert Morris University Polling Institute poll finds value of college in doubt

| Monday, March 10, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Money weighs heavily in most Americans' decisions about college, and a new poll suggests a majority now question whether a college degree is worth the cost.

The national poll of 1,006 people 18 and older, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, attempted to gauge public perception about higher education.

The poll by the Robert Morris University Polling Institute, which Trib Total Media sponsors, found that among those with a college education, only 35 percent said it is worth the cost.

The number slipped to 22 percent among those who had not attended college.

However, a majority of respondents — 62.9 percent — said a college degree is worth the time it takes to get one.

A separate poll of 501 Pennsylvania residents by the institute with a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points asked the same question and found only 22 percent said a degree is worth the cost today.

“That's a troubling finding. If differs from reality. I don't think there has ever been a greater disparity between the earning power of those with a degree and those without one,” said Michael Reilly of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers.

A 2011 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that those with a bachelor's degree will earn about $2.3 million over a lifetime, compared with about $1.3 million for those with a high school diploma.

Responses to the RMU poll suggest those kind of statistics played into the answers pollsters tallied when they asked respondents whether they had a good or very good standard of living.

Just over 75.5 percent of those with a college degree or some college said they had a good or very good standard of living, compared with 63.6 percent of high school graduates.

Reilly speculated that concern about rising college debt, which has surpassed $1.2 trillion, could be driving some to question the value of a degree.

“Debt is becoming an issue, and it's not just at the outliers. When it's averaging $28,000 to $29,000, it does concern people,” Reilly said.

Wendy Beckemeyer, vice president for enrollment at Robert Morris, said those responses also may reflect a struggling economy.

“If our economy was in a different place — if you asked this prior to 2008 or after the economy has recovered — I would expect those results would be different,” Beckemeyer said.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said it's not surprising people are concerned about the cost of higher education, given steady tuition increases over the last 25 years.

“But the results are completely at odds with the evidence on the economic value of a post-secondary education. And it is completely at odds with other surveys that have been done on this,” Hartle said.

RMU poll respondents, however, consistently said cost is an important factor for college. They ranked cost, the degree programs, financial aid available, scholarships available, value and job prospects on graduation in descending order as the six most important factors in selecting a college.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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