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Perceived Value of College Education Differs by Generation
South Dakota Ag Connection - 04/14/2017

Whether people view a college education as an opportunity to increase their earning power or a means of improving social connections varies based on their age, according to South Dakota State University associate consumer sciences professor Soo Hyun Cho.

She and researchers from four other land-grant institutions looked at how 1,000 adults, ages 18 to 54 with student loans, viewed college. Cho is part of a nationwide team of 24 researchers working on a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture project called Behavior Economic and Financial Decision-Making Across the Life Span.

Those in Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, describe a college education as a human capital investment, while those in Generation Y (also known as Millennials), born from 1981 to 2000, view college as a way to network with people and gain a better work environment, Cho said.

The 2014 survey was conducted by Survey Sampling International through its existing panels of participants. The research team's findings were published in the December 2016 Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal.

The 440 Generation X respondents had more conventional perceived values, citing better job skills and salaries as well as overall knowledge, explained Cho. Their median household income was $58,500--$10,000 per year more than the median income of the 560 Generation Y respondents.

However, Generation X respondents are well into their careers, while the Gen Y ones are either still in college or just beginning to build their careers, Cho explained. For this younger group, those social connections, whether on campus or in the workplace, have greater value.

The survey participants came from 50 universities in the United States and one university in Canada, according to Cho. A small subset of the respondents was from SDSU.

Nearly seven out of 10 college seniors who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2014 had student loans, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. In South Dakota, 69 percent of graduating seniors had an average debt of $26,023.

In a related study using Survey Sampling International respondents, Cho led the research team which examined how framing the scenario as an increase or loss in potential earnings affected the respondents' attitudes toward a college education.

The 1,928 participants were given two scenarios--one that emphasizes high school graduates earn less than college graduates and another that college graduates earn more than high school graduates. Based on these scenarios, the participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 64, were asked how prudent it would be for the student to take out a loan to go to college.

"When the question was framed as a loss of lifetime earnings, the participants were more likely to see a college education as beneficial," Cho explained. "The loss framing worked--it was more motivational than the gain."

Their results were published in the Sept. 2016 issue of Family and Consumer Science Research Journal. The article, "Experimental Design to Understand the Student Loan Decision: A Methodological Note," received the Outstanding Paper Award from the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. The researcher will be recognized at the association's annual conference June 26 in Dallas.

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