Half of adults regret a choice they made about college

Half of adults say they would change at least one choice they made about higher education, according to a new annual survey by Gallup and nonprofit Strada Education Network.

For the survey, Gallup and Strada researchers interviewed nearly 90,000 adults who had enrolled in or completed postsecondary education.

Around 51% of respondents said they would change at least one of these three big decisions about higher education:

  • Level of education;
  • Area of study; or
  • Institution attended.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents with some college but no degree were the most likely (59%) to say they would change one of these choices. But what may be more surprising is that those with bachelor's (52%) and associate degrees (54%) were actually not far behind.

People with a postgraduate degree were the most likely to be satisfied with their choices, but more than a third (37%) said they would change one of the three decisions.

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The most popular regret was field of study, which 36% of respondents said they would change. This regret was more common among people with some college but no degree (42%) and those who old a bachelor's degree (40%). For comparison, individuals with a technical or vocational degree (31%) and those with a postgraduate degree (24%) were much less likely to say they'd choose a different major. 

Across all degree levels, respondents who studied STEM fields were the least likely to say that they would change their field of study. At the bachelor's degree level, liberal arts students were the most likely (48%) to say they would change their major.

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The second most common regret was institution attended (28%). Relatively few people, just 12%, said they would change the level of degree they pursued.

Respondents with higher salaries, as well as those with lower levels of debt, were more likely to be satisfied with all their choices about higher education. But the researchers point out that many high earners (roughly 40%) did report that they regret at least one decision about college.

Older students tended to be less likely to regret their college choices. Roughly 40% of respondents who received their degree before age 30 say they would change something, compared with roughly 30% of respondents who received their degree after age 30.

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First-generation students were not more likely to make education decisions they now regret. The researchers write that parental education levels were not correlated to the desire to change an education decision.

Although many adults say they would change one education decision, around 80% of respondents who completed their degree or credential say they received a high-quality education.

"This is a positive outcome for current postsecondary leaders," the researchers write. But, they argue, "the fuller picture of education consumers' experiences reveals there is room for improvement in guiding them to and through their paths to successful completion and on to rewarding careers."

This is particularly true for lower-income students, Brandon Busteed, executive director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup, told the Wall Street Journal. "If you can afford to go to college, then heading off without a plan is no big deal and it can be a valuable experience. But if you can't afford it, I don't think students should be rushed into going," he said, adding "I think we should encourage students to think about taking a year and working to identify some things they are interested in."

(Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 6/1; Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 6/1; Gallup/Strada Education Network report, accessed 6/5).

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