The ability to land a better job and earn more money is typically the top response when countering skeptics about the value of higher education, but a new study from Gallup and Lumina Foundation shows Americans also value other personal and societal benefits of postsecondary education.
Based on previous surveys, the study assessed the relationship of postsecondary education — no college, some college, associate degree, baccalaureate and graduate degree — to 52 different economic and non-economics outcomes, such as job satisfaction, higher voting rates and greater volunteerism. Of those outcomes, 50 show a “meaningful statistical relationship” with additional postsecondary education, the study says.
“Education is positively related to higher income, better health status, better wellbeing, increased likelihood to do work that fits with their natural talents and interests, voting participation, volunteerism and charitable giving,” the study says.
It notes that while the relationships between education and positive life outcomes are generally similar across racial and ethnic backgrounds, there are some differences. For example, the link between education and workforce participation is slightly higher for Black adults. While 53% of Black adults with no postsecondary education are in the workforce — which is lower than the 55% of the overall U.S. adult population — Black adults at various levels of postsecondary education, including associate degrees, baccalaureates and gradaute degrees, are more likely to be in the workforce than U.S. adults overall at the same level of education.
The study also examined other aspects associated with higher education, including community and political involvement. Not surprisingly, engagement increases sharply with education. About one-quarter (25%) of Americans with no postsecondary education say they always vote in local elections, compared with 35% of those with an associate degree, 39% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 46% of those with graduate degrees.
Here, too, there are some slight differences among racial/ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic adults are more likely than white adults to say education leads to three of the outcomes queried:
- Half of Black adults and 44% of Hispanic adults say education leads to better mental health compared with 37% of white adults.
- Black and Hispanic adults are more likely than white adults to agree that more education leads to a more cooperative and harmonious society (53%, 49% and 43%, respectively).
- More Black and Hispanic adults also indicated they believe higher ed leads to more government representation working in the best interest of the public (43% and 38%, respectively, compared with 32% among white adults).
The study also found young adults are more inclined to have positive views of higher education. Among the largest differences noted:
- Two-thirds (67%) of young adults say more education leads to increased compassion for and tolerance of others, compared to 48% of those age 30 and older who agree.
- More than three-fourths (77%) of young adults agree more education leads to increased concern about the environment, compared to 59% of adults age 30 and older.
Where the gap lies
The study also emphasized people’s belief that higher education has health benefits, noting that adults with a postsecondary education rate their health better and have fewer health problems. It observes that prior studies highlight factors that may contribute to this, such as more education providing greater exposure to health-related information, access to social networks and encouraging healthy lifestyles.
But health is also among the areas that draw the most skepticism in relation to higher education. While most Americans agree that higher ed increases innovation, incomes and entrepreneurship, the public is more skeptical that higher ed improves physical health and mental health, cooperation or democratic representation, according to the study.