College Students Critical of Their Education, But Optimistic About Its Value

In December, our market research firm, Brand Amplitude, partnered with Viacom’s MTV Networks and The Associated Press (AP) to study young adults’ perceptions of the state of college education. The study was unique in many ways, most notably for even asking the question, “How are young adults coping with the many obstacles surrounding higher education“?

As far as we knew, no one else was looking at post-secondary education from the ‘customer’ point of view. We wanted to know how are young adults evaluating the college ‘value equation’? specifically, do they consider the time and money required to complete college to be worth the investment? How satisfied are they with their with their options?

A Unique Approach

While the plan from the beginning was to create a major survey (more on that in a minute), we started qualitatively with a unique “Millennial-on-Millennial” interviewing approach. We asked members of our Gen Y “Super Consumer” panel to invite qualified friends to complete an application to be interviewed. Each panel member interviewed selected nominees on videotape. This yielded surprisingly rich responses, since the panel members asked questions we wouldn’t even have thought to ask!

The findings were later validated in a major survey conducted by GfK and designed by Stanford University among 1,104 18-24 year olds. The results were widely published by another partner, the AP. This landed the story on page one of 66 national newspapers. Findings of the study, titled, “Young Adults Perspective on Education 2011” were also released in the form of a Viacom press release and on the Gates Foundation’s ‘Get Schooled‘ website.

Satisfaction Low, Optimism High

Most of the headlines focused on the disconnect between what students are seeking and what they perceive is being offered, both in high school and in college. With the price of college escalating, and a greater amount of the funding coming from loans, students are asking hard questions about what they really are looking for from a college education.

  • Overall, 27% of young adults say the education system has little to no understanding of their values and goals. More than a third (36%) report it is ambivalent to their values and goals. Only 37% say the education system mostly or completely understands them.
  • Among those surveyed with a high school diploma, but no college experience, 33% say the education system has little to no understanding of their values and goals.
  • 28% of those who have attended college say college doesn’t adequately prepare you for the workforce, while almost twice as many young adults (55%) say high school doesn’t prepare you for the workforce.
  • 31% say college doesn’t provide enough practical skills to survive as an adult and 51 percent say the same about high school. summarized the key findings in a terrific Infographic titled “Young, Broke and Determined”.  It does a great job of telling the big story.  But what it doesn’t convey is the anxiety students are feeling as they make the most expensive purchase of their lives.  There’s a sense that things have changed, and they can’t count on the system to work for them the way it has for other generations. Their optimism stems from a sense of self-reliance and belief that they can still shape the system to work for them. Let’s hope they are right.