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Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

Americans Lose Faith in College - howe1

Americans’ belief in the value of a college education has slipped to a new low. The biggest increase in skepticism in recent years has been among women and seniors age 65+. (The Wall Street Journal)

According to a recent WSJ-NORC survey, 56% of American adults believe a four-year college degree isn’t worth the cost. That’s a +16 percentage point rise since 2013. Conversely, only 42% still believe a degree has merit. That’s a -10 percentage point decline over the past decade. 

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So who’s driving this downswing in confidence? Since 2017, the largest decreases have been among women and those ages 65+. The share of women who believe college is worth the cost has fallen -10 percentage points to 44%. And the share of seniors who say the same thing has fallen -12 percentage points, also to 44%. College skepticism used to be led by men and young adults. Now it’s shared equally across all gender and age brackets. 

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At first glance, these negative attitudes among women and seniors may seem surprising. Women often rely on college for financial independence. (See "Are Young Men Giving Up on College?") And higher education isn't personally important to seniors. But two recent trends may explain these changing attitudes.

  • Market Conditions: Since 2021, the job market has been hot for non-college-educated youth. (See “College Enrollment Declines Deepen” and “American Apprenticeships Are on the Rise.”) And this has been especially true for young women: The employment-to-population ratio for those ages 16-24 has rebounded to 2007 levels for women but not men. This recent success in employment is due to women taking advantage of openings in the service industry and employers lowering their education requirements. As a result, fewer young women may regard a four-year college degree (and all its accompanying debt) as a prerequisite for starting a career.

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  • Politics: Colleges have increasingly come under fire from the right. They are often accused of groveling to woke students and silencing conservative voices. This political condemnation is probably strongest among older conservatives: A 2019 Pew survey, which found that a rising share of Americans think higher ed is "heading in the wrong direction," also reported that Republicans ages 65+ mostly blamed this on professors’ political beliefs (while Democrats blamed it on higher tuitions).    

All in all, declining faith in college is yet another example of Americans’ increased pessimism and changing life priorities. (See “Is America Losing Faith in America?” and “Americans’ Pessimism Soars.”)

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.