Do Students and Families View College Tuition as a Worthwhile Investment?

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This post was co-authored Dr. Raquel Bermejo, Associate Vice President for Market Research and Planning.

In an era where the cost of higher education is steadily rising, prospective students and their families often grapple with the question of whether a college education is truly worth the investment. While the price tag of a college degree can be daunting, it’s crucial to understand that the benefits of a college education extend far beyond the immediate financial investment. The potential benefits in terms of career opportunities, personal growth, and lifelong learning make college a valuable choice for many families. However, not all families think it is a worthwhile investment in their students’ future. It is important to understand families’ perceptions, and to consider how we can best communicate in higher education to help families (and students) see tuition as an excellent investment in their students’ lives and futures.

In 2023 we asked more than 12,000 families of prospective college students if they thought money paid in tuition was a worthwhile investment in their students’ futures. The same question was asked to more than 20,000 families of current college students.

ANSWER Families of prospective college students Families of current college students
Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment 80% 70%
Tuition paid is not a worthwhile investment 3% 14%
Undecided 17% 12%

Based on just the answers to this question from both studies, one could think that families’ satisfaction with tuition paid is higher before students enroll in college. However as we dig into some of the nuances of the data, we discover that the answer is not that simple.

Perceptions vary based on student grade level

One interesting observation is prospective families’ satisfaction increases the closer their student gets to high school graduation and college enrollment.

Prospective Families' Satisfaction With Tuition Paid

Therefore, given this data, communication and information that could potentially affect families’ perceptions should be shared earlier rather than later. This data indicates that it may be valuable to begin sharing information regarding the return on investment of a college education with students and families as early as the 10th grade. When we look at the data for families of currently enrolled students, we see satisfaction levels with tuition paid is highest in the first and third years of college, and lowest in the second and last years.

University Families' Satisfaction With Tuition Paid

With family satisfaction highest during the first year of their students’ college education, the key for institutions is to maintain, grow, and cultivate that satisfaction by understanding what information and resources families and their students need to ensure the students’ success and ongoing commitment to investing in their degree.

Currently enrolled student perspectives

A similar question on the perception of tuition paid being a worthwhile investment is asked of currently enrolled students on the RNL Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI). At four-year private and four-year public institutions, the most recent student responses reflect the following satisfaction levels by class levels:

Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment. Four-year private institutions: Satisfied/Very Satisfied Four-year public institutions: Satisfied/Very Satisfied
Freshmen 51% 54%
Sophomores 43% 48%
Juniors 40% 49%
Seniors 39% 47%

A similar pattern of declining satisfaction is reflected in students, with current seniors indicating the lowest levels of satisfaction with the perception of their tuition investment as worthwhile. This is concerning to observe since these lower levels of satisfaction with their investment could lead to alumni who are less engaged with the institution in the years to come.

Student residence influences

Families whose currently enrolled students live on campus are more likely to be satisfied with the tuition investment than those whose students live off-campus or at home.

University Families' Satisfaction With Tuition Paid

The perceptions are a little different for the students based on where they are living:

Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment. Four-year private institutions: Satisfied/Very Satisfied Four-year public institutions: Satisfied/Very Satisfied
Residence halls 41% 46%
Renting a room or apartment off campus 40% 47%
Parent’s home 50% 53%

Here we see students living on campus with the lowest levels of satisfaction, while those who are living at home are the most satisfied with their tuition being worthwhile. It is hard to fully understand the disconnect here without more context, but families may be concerned with their student being more disconnected from the full college experience while students may be more concerned with the room and board fees that can add to their expenses. The most recent data also breaks a pattern that has been observed for many years where students living on campus were more likely to have higher satisfaction levels overall compared with their off-campus counterparts. This may be an area where the impact of the pandemic is evident, with on-campus restrictions in place that may have discouraged students and influenced their overall experience. In any case, there is an opportunity for institutions to intentionally communicate with students and their families in all residence situations to potentially improve satisfaction levels in this area.

In-person and online student perceptions

Families of college students who attend classes exclusively in-person are more likely to be satisfied with tuition pad than those who have students attending exclusively online or hybrid.

University Families' Satisfaction With Tuition Paid

While the SSI doesn’t have students indicate if they are exclusively in-person, exclusively online or enrolled in a hybrid program, we can compare satisfaction levels for all students in the four-year private and four-year public national data sets with students who are in the national data set for the Priorities Survey for Online Learners (PSOL). This instrument is designed for students who are primarily enrolled in online learning programs.

ANSWER Four-year private institutions: Satisfied/Very Satisfied Four-year public institutions: Satisfied/Very Satisfied Online Learning Students:
Satisfied/Very Satisfied
Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment. 44% 51% 70%

Again, we observe different levels of satisfaction between the families of students and the students themselves. This may be affected by whether the student chose to be enrolled primarily online or not. Often for students completing the PSOL, it is their choice to be enrolled in an online program and they are typically satisfied with that experience. For families indicating that their student is enrolled exclusively online, there may be a perception that online is not the typical college experience and there may be additional opportunities for the college to re-enforce the value of what is provided.

Family income and tuition perceptions

In the studies of both the prospective families and the current families, it was interesting to observe that those with lower incomes were more likely to be satisfied with the tuition investment than those with higher incomes. Low-income families may be more likely to think of their students’ college experience as an opportunity to get a better job, make more money, and may be more likely to see higher education acting as an agent for social mobility for not only the student, but for the whole family. Higher-income families may not be looking at a college education the same way, with their students possibly already having the social and economic resources available to them, so for those families understanding the cultural, social, and personal growth aspects of college may be key.

Prospective Families' Satisfaction With Tuition Paid by Family Income Level

Note: the income item is not available on the Student Satisfaction Inventory results.

Opportunities for communication

There are a variety of topics that can be important to communicate with families and students, prospective and current, when it comes to building the case for the tuition investment that is expected at your institution. Here are a few areas to consider to help you with improving satisfaction levels:

Student personal growth: Emphasize the personal changes students will experience, the personal growth during their college years, such as increased independence, improved critical thinking skills, and exposure to diverse perspectives by highlighting students who just graduated and their families in videos and resources families can access on your website, or view when they are on campus.

It’s also powerful to share success stories of individuals who have achieved their career goals and improved their lives through higher education. These real-life examples can be inspiring and reassuring.

Degree relevance: Satisfaction often depends on whether the degree obtained is relevant to the student’s chosen career path. Students who feel their education aligns with their goals are more likely to view tuition as a worthwhile investment. Ensure families know all the resources your institution has to help students find their interest and area of study as well as to connect them with careers that will allow them professional and personal success.

Financial aid and scholarships: Partner with your financial aid office to highlight the plethora of financial aid opportunities and scholarships your institution offers and ensure families can reach out to this office to request help with application, status, etc. This is important messaging for students across class levels and not just as part of the initial recruitment process.

Access to resources: Students who take advantage of resources offered by the college, such as research opportunities, internships, off campus study and support services, are more likely to feel they are getting their money’s worth. Families act as “nudgers” for students, both on the prospective and enrolled sides. Make sure your families understand all the opportunities available to students for support and success.

Cultural and experiential benefits: Many of your families and students value the cultural and experiential aspects of college life, such as exposure to diverse cultures, participation in extracurricular activities, and involvement in campus events. Are all these opportunities shared with families? Where can you better build awareness and provide guidance?

Agent of social mobility: A college degree can significantly aid social mobility by providing individuals with the means to improve their socioeconomic status and achieve a higher level of economic well-being. Incorporate this messaging to both students and their families as critical points in the decision-making process, while initially recruiting students and when they are determining if they will return for the next semester.

What else can you do to make a difference?

If you have Student Satisfaction Inventory data on your campus, we encourage you to review your results for your overall population and for the demographic subpopulations highlighted here. National data is of value, but knowing how your students feel puts you in the best position to respond. And if you are not currently collecting student satisfaction data, you may want to add it to your assessment calendar. You can learn more here. We also invite you to download the national reports on perceptions of families and to consider working with RNL to invite families at your institution to participate in our 2024 studies. Contact Raquel for more information.

Complimentary consultation on student satisfaction assessment

Talk to our satisfaction assessment experts about how you can easily implement the survey on your campus, including when is the best time to survey and how to get strong completion rates.

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