What is the value of an undergraduate education?

Scholars, politicians, and families have debated that question for decades. Research consistently demonstrates the economic payoff of earning a degree, but is that enough to make college “worth it” for students?

In July 2019, the Elon University Poll and the Center for Engaged Learning partnered on a survey of 1,575 college graduates, ages 18-34, living in the United States. These alumni graduated from a wide range of institutions across the country, ranging from large research-intensive universities to small liberal arts colleges. Results have a credibility interval of +/- 2.5%.

In addition to exploring other aspects of their college experiences, survey participants were asked to report if they had taken part in a variety of high-impact practices during college.

Did you take part in any of the following during college? Select all that applyYesNo
An internship or work placement51.7%43.3%
Service-learning or community-engaged learning course35.4%64.6%
Capstone project or experience31.7%68.3%
Independent undergraduate research project31.6%*68.4%
Study abroad experience19.3%80.7%
*80% of these undergraduate research experiences were projects required for a course.

These results roughly track what is reported in other large-scale studies of student experiences (for example, here are results from the 2019 National Survey of Student Engagement, NSSE).

We also asked our survey participants to indicate whether attending college was “worth it” for them personally, considering both the costs and benefits of their college experiences.

Considering both the costs and benefits of your college experience, would you say attending college was “worth it” for you personally?Overall
Definitely yes51%
Probably yes33%
Probably not11%
Definitely not5%

When analyzing the results from the survey, we found something that has not been documented before by scholars. Responses to “Considering both the costs and benefits of your college experience, would you say attending college was ‘worth it’ for you personally?” are highly correlatedwith whether graduates had participated in high-impact experiences.

For those recent college graduates who had 0 high-impact experiences, only 30% said college was definitely worth it. For those who reported having even 1 of these high-impact experiences, 44% said college was definitely worth it. That’s nearly a 15-point jump. And among graduates who had 2 or more unique high impact college experiences (e.g., an internship and a service-learning course), 60% of respondents said college was definitely worth it.

Although we conducted this poll before the COVID-19 pandemic, the results offer insight into how colleges and universities should prioritize support for learning experiences. As George Kuh, Ken O’Donnell, and Carol Geary Schneider remind us in “HIPs at Ten,” high impact college experiences are considered “high impact” because:

(a) They are associated with unusually positive effects on a variety of desired learning and persistence outcomes;

(b) When done well, they require applied, hands-on,integrative learning;

(c) They have compensatory effects for students from historically underserved populations; and

(d) Participating in multiple HIPs has cumulative, additive effects for learning and persistence.

Kuh, O’Donnell, and Schneider 2017, 15-16

That third point deserves particular emphasis. Scholars have known for nearly a decade that high-impact experiences have positive educational effects for all students, and they are especially significant for new majority students — the Black, Latinx, first-generation, and other students who historically have been marginalized in college.

This new polling data suggests that these experiences not only contribute to student learning and success in college, but they also contribute to alumni feeling that their time in college was “worth it.” And the more of these distinct experiences a student had in college, the more value they report from college.

Making high-impact experiences the heart of the undergraduate experience, then, not only is good for students educationally, but it also may improve alumni — and perhaps, public — perceptions of the value of higher education.

The challenge for colleges and universities remains scaling-up these experiences — offering equitable, high-quality high-impact practices to all students — a focus of the Center’s ongoing research.


  • Finley, Ashley, and McNair, Tia Brown. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. AAC&U. https://www.aacu.org/assessinghips/report
  • Kuh, George, Ken O’Donnell, and Carol Geary Schneider. 2017. “HIPs at Ten.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 49(5): 8-16.
  • National Survey of Student Engagement. 2019. “A Closer Look at High-Impact Practices.” https://nsse.indiana.edu/research/annual-results/selected-results/closer-look-hip.html
  • Torpey, Elka. 2018. “Measuring the value of education.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Career Outlook. https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2018/data-on-display/education-pays.htm

Jessie L. Moore is Director of the Center for Engaged Learning and Professor of English: Professional Writing & Rhetoric at Elon University. She leads planning, implementation, and assessment of the Center’s research seminars. With Peter Felten, she edits the Stylus Publishing/Center for Engaged Learning Series on Engaged Learning and Teaching and the Center for Engaged Learning Open Access Series.

Peter Felten is executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, assistant provost for teaching and learning, and professor of history at Elon University.

Jason Husser is Director of the Elon Poll and Associate Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies at Elon University.

Kaye Usry is Assistant Director of the Elon Poll and Assistant Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies at Elon University.

How to cite this post:

Moore, Jessie L., Peter Felten, Jason Husser, and Kaye Usry. (2020, October 27). Is College Worth It? Alumni Say High-Impact Experiences Make College Worthwhile [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/is-college-worth-it-alumni-say-high-impact-experiences-make-college-worthwhile