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Those most likely to suffer the burden of college debt believe it’s usually worth the investment.

The Hechinger Report conducted a survey in collaboration with the APM Research Lab and APM Reports’ Educate team. To view the full results of the survey, visit APM Research Lab.

With the cost of college steadily rising, and student debt continuing to overwhelm millions of borrowers, it would make sense if young adults questioned the value of a bachelor’s degree. But more than half of them still believe it’s worth the price tag.

Among 18- to 34-year-olds, 59 percent believe four-year schools are worth the cost, according to a new survey from American Public Media’s APM Research Lab and The Hechinger Report. While that’s about the same percentage for those of middle age who answered the same question (60 percent of adults ranging from ages 35 to 54), it’s noteworthy that so many millennials and Generation Z adults share this belief.  They are the ones most burdened by student loans.

“Cost is all about what you truly think the value of it is,” said Anthony Bernazani, a 34-year old graduate of a community college and a four-year school, George Mason University, both in Virginia. Bernazani, a defense contractor, believes that because of the job opportunities, salary and intellectual gains that can come with a degree, “the value that you get out of it is worth the cost.”

More than half of college students under age 30 took on debt to pay for their education, according to the Federal Reserve. The Employee Benefit Research Institute estimates that 45 percent of families whose head of household is below age 35 have student debt, but that percentage drops to 34 percent for those ages 35 to 44 and even lower for those 45 and older.

Despite the weight of student loans, borrowing for a bachelor’s degree offers a return on investment that will last a lifetime, higher education experts say.

Chart showing the breakdown of different demographics regarding how they feel about whether college is worth the cost

With a four-year degree, “on average you make two-thirds more than high school graduates do,” said James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit group that works to improve college access and affordability. “You’re only about half as likely to be unemployed. It is worth borrowing money.”

It’s that idea of long-term gain over short-term pain that may be spurring young adults to keep borrowing, even as national student loan balances increased by $15 billion in the last quarter of 2018, according to the Center for Microeconomic Data at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

“I think people recognize, especially young Americans, that if you don’t go to college, you don’t have a lot of opportunities and avenues available to you,” said Rachel Fishman, deputy director for higher education research at New America, a think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

And compared to a certificate or an associate degree, on average, “the bachelor’s degree still performs better over someone’s lifetime in terms of return on investment,” she said.

Considering these statistics, she’s surprised more young adults don’t believe a four-year degree is worth the cost.

“I think it is a reflection of the anxiety people are feeling over how expensive a four-year degree in specific has gotten, and how a lot of the financing, especially for low- and middle-income students, for a four-year degree is going to take the form of a loan,” Fishman said.

Average one-year costs for tuition, fees and room and board at public colleges totaled $21,370 for in-state students and $37,430 for out-of-state students this year, and $48,510 for private college students, according to the College Board.

About 36 percent all American adults, regardless of age, believe college is not worth the cost, according to the APM-Hechinger Report survey. Of that 36 percent, 60 percent think the statement “people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt” more closely aligns with their reasoning; 36 percent believe the statement “you can get a good job without a four-year degree” comes closest to their reasoning.

Lee Leon is one young adult who’s skeptical about the cost of college matching up to its worth.

“I went to college, and it just got me in a lot of debt,” said the 29-year-old. She said her student loan debt was about $15,000.

Leon, like Bernazani, took the survey, but her college experience was very different from his. Bernazani’s parents paid for his education, but Leon used loans.

She took classes for four years at Saint Paul College in St. Paul, Minnesota, but dropped out because of health issues in 2012. “I just started working,” she said. She took jobs at Burger King and did other food services and customer service work. Her pay was around $7 or $8 an hour.

Chart showing how more Americans believe college should be free than think it's always worth the cost, according to a poll conducted by APM in partnership with Hechinger Report

While a majority of Americans believe college is worth the cost, an even greater percentage believe public college should be free.

“I had to pay a lot of my student loans back with, you know, my taxes,” she said, adding that her wages were garnished.

She now works as a peer recovery coach for people struggling with addiction.

“I didn’t really need a college degree to get to where I am,” she said. Leon makes between $16 and $18 an hour, she said.

Students who borrow and don’t complete their degree are most at risk of not paying their student loans, which can make college seem less worth the cost.

“People who have low loan balances are actually the most likely to default on their loans out of any other group,” said Fishman.

About 11 percent of borrowers default on their student loans, according to the Department of Education.

Related: College spending comes under closer scrutiny

College students and graduates are less likely to default with $100,000 in debt, for example, than with $7,000 in debt, Fishman said. Those with a smaller amount of debt probably went to school for a year and don’t have much to show for it, or obtained a short-term credential that has a low return on investment. But if you have $100,000 in debt you probably have a graduate or professional degree, she said.

“Your debt-to-income ratio is going to look a lot different in those situations,” Fishman said.

Systemic racism may also influence whether college graduates see the cost as worth it.

“Black borrowers in general across all income categories are more reliant on debt financing for their higher education. Even when they get a degree they still face labor market discrimination,” Fishman said. The wage gap between black and white employees grew the most among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute on race and salary earnings covering a 36-year period ending in 2016.

Borrowing makes sense for students from middle- and upper-middle-income households because they probably won’t get a lot of grant aid, Fishman said. She encourages students to be prudent, though, when taking out loans.

“You should take borrowing seriously,” she said. “You should not necessarily be scared of it, if it is the right decision for you.”

It’s also important, she said, for prospective students to pay attention to the student outcomes at schools they’re considering: “Make sure the graduation rates are good for students that look like you.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Photo: screengrab from 

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan.