Just 22% of Americans say college is worth it if you have to take out student loans (2024)

A bachelor's degree can run close to $100,000 a year at some colleges.

Most Americans agree it's still worth it, but the bulk of those believers say so only if you don't have to take out loans, according to a new survey from Pew Research. Just 22% of U.S. adults say the cost of college is worth it if you have to take out student loans, Pew finds.

The financial arguments in favor of going to college remain strong. Bachelor's degree-holders tend to earn higher salaries, have lower unemployment rates and hold more wealth than their less-educated peers. But the cost of college continues to rise and millions of Americans are still struggling with student debt long after graduating.

All considered, 29% of U.S. adults say college isn't worth the cost, according to Pew.

On top of that, workers with only some college education or a high school diploma alone have made notable strides toward closing the financial gaps between themselves and degree-holders, Pew finds.

Here's a look at why the benefits of getting a college degree aren't necessarily shrinking, but the reasons to skip higher education may be growing.

The difference a degree can make

Outcomes may be improving for American workers who forego college or don't finish their bachelor's degrees. But the vast difference between the net worth of young adults with degrees compared with those without is difficult to ignore.

Households headed by a college graduate ages 25 to 34 had a median net worth of $120,200 in 2022, compared with $30,700 among high school graduates and $52,900 for those with some college, according to Pew.

All three groups saw their wealth grow significantly in the last decade, due in part to the explosion in home values in the last few years and the stock market's recent strong performance. But college graduates stood to benefit the most from both of these broader economic conditions.

"[College graduates] are more likely to be homeowners, so they probably have more home equity," Richard Fry, a senior researcher at Pew who co-authored the survey, tells CNBC Make It. "Their employers are more likely to offer defined contribution retirement plans and the college-educated are more likely to participate in those retirement plans."

Their stronger homeownership and retirement plan contribution rates and may be due to the fact that college graduates earn more.

However, since student loans historically have gotten in the way of many college graduates buying homes and even saving for retirement, the question of whether the benefits outweigh the cost — especially if you have to take on debt — still stands.

While nearly half of Americans say a college degree is less important today than it was 20 years ago, according to Pew, only 34% say it's very or extremely likely someone without a degree could get a well-paying job today.

'The bleeding has stopped'

College degree-holders have been out-earning their less-educated peers for decades. Those with degrees have seen their wages rise fairly steadily — outside of recessions — since the 1970s, Pew finds.

On the other hand, those who either never started or didn't finish college saw their wages fall from the 1970s through the Great Recession in the mid-aughts.

In the last 10 years, however, the situation has started to improve."The bleeding has stopped," Fry says.

He calls out young men (ages 25 to 34) as an example of the growth those without degrees have experienced over the last decade.

The inflation-adjusted median annual earnings among young men who work full-time and only have high school diplomas was $45,000 in 2023, up from $39,300 in 2014, according to Pew's analysis of Current Population Survey data.

"Their inflation-adjusted earnings are at least finally starting to grow," Fry says. "That's noteworthy because with the exception of the late 1990s, once you adjust for inflation, their earnings have been pretty steadily falling."

Young women (ages 25 to 34) without college degrees experienced similar growth over the last decade, but still earn less than their male peers. The inflation-adjusted median annual earnings among working young women with only high school diplomas were $36,000 in 2023 compared with $30,900 in 2014..

While earnings have also continued to grow for those with college degrees, the improvement for less-educated workers is good news for those who may not be able to afford college, even if they think it would be worth the cost.

"[Those without degrees] haven't really narrowed the gaps, but this still is somewhat of an exceptional period because they have really gained from the tight labor markets where employers have had trouble finding less skilled workers," Fry says. "The less-educated young workers really benefited from the tight labor markets of the last 10 years."

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Just 22% of Americans say college is worth it if you have to take out student loans (2024)


Just 22% of Americans say college is worth it if you have to take out student loans? ›

Only 22% of 5,200 survey respondents said that college is worth the cost if a student has to take on debt, while another 47% said a four-year degree is worth it only if the student doesn't have to take out loans. That leaves 29% of respondents who say college isn't worth its cost, regardless.

Is taking out loans for college worth it? ›

Borrowing to earn a four-year college degree typically pays off, according to research from the College Board, a company that helps prepare students for higher education. This conclusion holds true even after considering the time out of the labor force when a student could have been earning money.

What percent of college students take out student loans? ›

Average Student Loan Debt By State
RankState% of Residents with Debt
8 more rows

Is a college degree worth accumulating student loan debt? ›

According to a 2021 study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, the median worker with a bachelor's degree earns about $2.8 million in their lifetime. That's about $1.2 million more than someone with only a high school diploma and about $800,000 more than someone with an associate's degree.

Why are student loans not worth it? ›

If you have too much student loan debt, you won't be able to save as much for retirement. Student loan debt can lower your credit score, especially if you fail to make on-time payments. Student debts may be forgiven under certain circ*mstances, but almost never if they are in default.

Is it smart to take out a student loan? ›

Student Loans Can Pay Off, But Be Smart About Them

Yes, debt can negatively impact your future, but there are benefits to taking out student loans. Namely, helping you to obtain the education you need for your future career.

Is it better to take out student loans or pay cash? ›

Many financial “experts” say you should always pay with cash when possible. They apply this rule to all debts, including credit cards, auto loans, home loans, and yes, student loans.

What percentage of America is debt free? ›

Around 23% of Americans are debt free, according to the most recent data available from the Federal Reserve. That figure factors in every type of debt, from credit card balances and student loans to mortgages, car loans and more.

What's the average college debt in America? ›

Average student loan debt in America

51% of 2021-22 bachelor's degree recipients graduated with an average of $29,400 in student loan debt. Among all borrowers, the average student loan debt in 2023 was $38,290. 53% of federal student loan borrowers owe $20,000 or less.

How much does the average person take out in student loans? ›

Average student debt by degree

The average full-time undergraduate borrower took out $3,860 in federal loans for the 2022-23 year, while the average full-time graduate borrower took out $17,490 in federal loans.

Is college worth it anymore? ›

College graduates still enjoy higher earnings than the average U.S. worker. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2022, bachelor's degree holders took home a median wage of $1,432 per week, while workers with just a high school diploma earned only $853. That's a difference of 68%.

Is $40,000 a lot in student loans? ›

Consider your expected salary

If you're undecided on your major, know that the average student loan debt is $37,000 and the average post-grad salary is $40,000. Many schools also offer information on the average salary of graduates.

What college degree has the most debt? ›

Looking at all U.S. bachelor's degrees, certain majors were more likely than others to result in a heavy burden of debt, according to the Education Data Initiative's new study. At the top of the list for debt was behavioral sciences, which racked up a median debt of $42,822.

Do people regret taking student loans? ›

The negative effects of student loan debt aren't just financial either. In our own research at Ramsey Solutions, we found that 53% of those who took out student loans regretted it. And 43% of those who took out student loans regret going to college altogether.

What are 3 drawbacks to getting a student loan? ›

What are the Cons?
  • Taking out a student loan means you are starting your adult life with debt.
  • Student loan debt can get in the way of other financial and lifestyle goals.
  • The penalties for defaulting on some loan payments include added fees, added interest and wage garnishment.

Are student loans the worst debt? ›

Student loans are considered good debt due to their potential for long-term benefits, including increased earning potential. Other factors of good debt include lower interest rates, flexible repayment options, and potential tax deductions.

Is it better to pay for college without loans? ›

Apply for Grants

Grants, not student loans, are arguably the best way to pay for college education expenses. Unlike loans, grants don't need to be paid back and are therefore an excellent source of funding for college.

Is it okay to borrow money for college? ›

While many students borrow money to attend college, it's not a decision that you should take lightly. You should consider borrowing after exploring all other financial aid and payment options.

Does taking out student loans hurt your credit? ›

How student loans affect your credit score. Student loans are a type of installment loan, similar to a car loan, personal loan, or mortgage. They are part of your credit report, and can impact your payment history, length of your credit history, and credit mix. If you pay on time, you can help your score.

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