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Many Grads Have Regrets About College

Regrets can influence work productivity, engagement, mental health

An illustration of a man carrying a bag with a euro sign on it.

The sticker-shock of a college degree, the loan debt after graduation and the gut-punch when one's major doesn't translate into a well-paying job—all are reasons that today's college students express regret about their higher education choices, according to a new survey.

And employers may want to pay attention.

"Experts have proven that stress associated with debt can severely impact productivity, engagement, success and mental health," said Bill Gimbel, president of LaSalle Benefits, a corporate benefits firm in Northbrook, Ill. "These factors combine negatively to influence an employee's work product."

The great majority—nearly two-thirds—of graduates with a bachelor's degree regret something about their education, according to the survey of 248,000 college graduates by PayScale, which provides online information about salary, benefits and compensation. The survey authors examined the responses by age, major area of study, and whether participants attended public or private universities.  

PayScale conducted the online survey in April and May of 2019, and all respondents held at least a bachelor's degree. The graduates were of all ages.

The most common regret was having taken out student loans—and the resulting debt following graduation. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said these loans were their biggest regret.

"Those who are younger, majored in lower-earning fields or attended private universities tended to regret their student loans the most," the survey authors wrote.

Student loan debt is a growing problem in the United States. In 2010, student loan debt countrywide totaled $830 billion. Now the latest data from the Federal Reserve shows that more than 44 million people collectively owe $1.5 trillion. About 65 percent of this debt belongs to people under age 40. Seven out of 10 new college graduates owe, on average, $37,172.

"The cost of college has skyrocketed to unprecedented rates for a variety of reasons," said Mike Brown, a research analyst at LendEDU, a Hoboken, N.J.-based company that helps consumers compare financial products. "The country's population has steadily risen, there's a more crowded candidate pool for employers, young adults need to remain competitive to land a good-paying job, and the benchmark to stay competitive is a bachelor's degree.

"Why would colleges not raise tuition, from a business perspective?" he asked. "I believe there's a prevailing greediness on the side of the higher education administrators, who just raise tuition prices because everyone else is doing it, and because they can."

Brown said he believes student loan debt—and companies' willingness to help graduates pay it off—will be among the top five national issues in the 2020 presidential election.

SHRM supports legislation (H.R. 1043) that would let employers give tax-free student loan assistance up to $5,250 a year per employee. 

"More employers are offering student loan repayment or refinancing as benefits, but I believe it's still underutilized," said Jeff Oldham, senior vice president for BenefitsPlace Distribution at Benefitfocus, a cloud-based benefits management platform firm with headquarters in Charleston, S.C.

A survey by American Student Assistance found that 86 percent of respondents would commit to staying with their employer for five years if the employer helped repay their student loans. The same data found that student loan repayment was the third most desirable employment benefit.

"It's my perception that if H.R. 1043 passes, that we'll see employer adoption of student loan repayment benefits jump," Oldham said.

Other Regrets

After student debt, graduates' biggest regrets were the poor work-related networking opportunities they had in school and their choice of a major area of study—at 11 percent and 12 percent of respondents, respectively.

Older respondents were more likely to say they had no regrets about their college education.

In fact, a majority of Baby Boomers—51 percent—indicated they hadn't any regrets. 

Millennials were almost exactly split between having no regrets—28.7 percent—and regretting taking out student loans—28.8 percent.

"These statistics on Millennial college regrets is in stark contrast with other generations," the survey authors wrote. "Only 13 percent of Baby Boomers have regrets about their loans. [Generation] Xers reported a similar degree of student loan regrets with Millennials, 26 percent, but also a much higher 37 percentage of 'no regret' responses."

[SHRM members-only resource: Salary Survey Directory]

Millennials have good reason to regret their student loans: Public university tuition has increased by 62 percent over the last decade. In a 2019 study, the Federal Reserve found that average student loan debt between 2005 and 2014 doubled among those ages 24 to 32. The study also found that student loan debt was a key reason for the stark decline in homeownership and wealth accumulation among young adults.

Regretting that Major

Huge shifts in technology have created whole new fields of college study, while today's labor market demands more technical training than ever. Not surprisingly, recent graduates who studied technology-driven fields—and who tend to now be in high-earning professions—are least likely to report regrets about their education.

For instance, computer science and engineering majors had the lowest response rates to regretting their area of study—4 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Those majoring in education—while having relatively few regrets overall about college—nonetheless reported a high rate of regrets about their student loans.  

"Education is consistently ranked high in the most meaningful majors, but also consistently low in majors that pay you back" financially, the survey authors wrote.

Humanities majors report regretting their area of study at a much higher rate, 21 percent, than other majors.

Meanwhile, those who majored in health sciences, art and social sciences were the most likely to express regrets about their student loans. Social science and art majors tend to land jobs with relatively low salaries. And while medical professionals can earn healthy paychecks, their regrets may stem from having racked up years of debt for post-graduate or medical school training.

"If you haven't already discussed the earning potential of the role [a worker] is in, that could be a good start to showcase what the employee has the potential to make," Gimbel said. "It would be a waste if an employee left because they weren't aware of the earning potential they had in their role."