The experience of going to college has become a cultural ideal; a promise of making important connections, pursuing your passions and mastering key skills. While going to college provides a crucial stepping stone into professional careers for many, it has also become a serious investment for students and families. The college bribery scandal shows just how invested some families are in those shiny college promises.
But once it’s all said and done, once you’ve walked across the stage with diploma in hand and set out on the path you’ve chosen, is it odd to feel some type of regret about your schooling? As it turns out, no. The jarring costs of a college degree, the years of commitment and the repercussions that academic choices can have on earnings potential leave many regretting their educational choices.
Our research shows that the vast majority – nearly two thirds – of those with at least a bachelor’s degree regret something about their education. By far the most common regret reported was student loans. No matter how we cut the data, student loans was the number one regret reported. After this, the most common regret was area of study, but this varied greatly by major. Those who majored in technical or high-earnings fields had the lowest rates of saying they regretted their field of study.
In this analysis, we look at college regrets by generation, major group, degree level and school type. Each of these impacts not only the opportunities you have while in college, but also those you have once you have secured your diploma. Although student loan regret is dominant throughout these groups, regrets play out differently for each one. We detail these nuances in the sections below.
College Regrets? Most Say Yes.
From April to May of 2019, 248,000 respondents took Payscale’s online salary survey. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree were able to select their biggest educational regret. Respondents could choose one of the following: student loans; area of study (major, minor, concentration); school/institution choice; too many degrees/over-education for my career; time to complete (too long); academic underachievement; not making the right connections (networking with peers/faculty/alumni); and I have no regrets. Respondents were also asked about their education level, major, school name, degree and age, among other things.
Among all surveyed, 66 percent – nearly two-thirds – reported they had an educational regret. Only 34 percent said that they have no regrets about their college education.
At 27 percent, student loans are by far the biggest college regret in our sample. Poor networking and area of study are the next most selected, making up 11 and 12 percent of respondents, respectively. In fact, these three are the most common college regrets throughout most of our sample groups.
Attaining too many degrees and making the wrong school choice have consistently low response rates. Time to complete school and academic underachievement also usually rank low, but there are nuances to these answer choices as they are broken out into different sample groups. This is particularly true for education level and major groups.
Millennials Regret Their Loans
Each generation has their turn at college, usually defining a cultural moment by boldly protesting or innovating old ideas. Although students may face similar choices about their education, such as what to study or where to attend school, the greater context informing those choices can change. The astronomical tuition spikes in the last decade, the major shifts in technology driving new fields of study and a demanding labor market requiring more technical training are all recent evolutions of going to college.
Breaking out respondents by generation is an opportunity to see how those changes have driven educational regrets for older and younger generations. Older respondents more frequently report “no regrets” than younger respondents. Baby boomers are the only group within any sample of this research to have a majority of respondents, 51 percent, report that they do not have regrets about their college education. Millennials, however, were closely divided between “no regrets” and student loans. The difference between the two was a tenth of a percentage point – 28.8 percent of millennials chose student loans and another 28.7 percent reported “no regrets.”
These statistics on millennial college regrets are in stark contrast with other generations. Only 13 percent of baby boomers have regrets about their loans. Gen Xer’s reported a similar degree of student loan regrets with millennials, 26 percent, but also a much higher 37 percentage of “no regret” responses. Millennials, therefore, have the highest response rate for regretting student loans and the highest percentage of having some form of regret about their college experience. This points to the struggle that has so strongly defined millennials: the student debt crisis.
Contextualizing the Student Debt Crisis
The burden of student loans is a plight shared by every group in this research, but the degree of student loan regret changes throughout these data cuts. Those who are younger, majored in lower-earning fields or attended private universities tended to regret their student loans the most.
As total student loan debt approaches $1.6 trillion in 2019, surpassing credit card debt, conversations on student loans are at the forefront of national politics. Millennials in particular are at the center of these conversations, since public university tuition has increased by 62 percent over the last decade. In a 2019 study, the Federal Reserve found average student loan debt between 2005 and 2014 doubled among individuals ages 24 to 32. The study also found that student loan debt was an important factor in the stark decline of homeownership and wealth accumulation among young adults.
These bleak statistics on the student debt crisis, and the lasting effects such a crisis will have on younger generations, has created a conversation about the true worth of higher education. It is widely accepted that attending college will ultimately be a worthwhile return on investment. For younger generations, however, this is a tough sell. Payscale’s unique College ROI Report breaks down and ranks the return on investment for thousands of individual schools, providing a great resource for those looking to seriously evaluate their school options. A well-researched decision on where to attend school may help avoid a personal student debt crisis, if not a national one.
Varying Degrees–of Regret
One of the most impactful decisions of a college career is what to study and get a degree in. This choice shapes the skills you learn, the professions you qualify for and your earnings potential. Given this, it is not surprising that what people regret varies by what they studied.
We divided respondents into eleven major groups, or areas of study, to determine how college regrets play out differently among different types of majors. Although no group had a majority of “no regret” responses, fields that lead into high-earning or high-meaning jobs did see a larger portion of respondents that had no regrets about college. Engineering, education and computer science majors were among the major groups with the highest rates of “no regret” responses. Humanities majors, on the other hand, had the largest percentage of respondents that had some type of college regret.
Engineering and computer science majors both lead into high-earning professions. In our College Salary Report, engineering and computer science majors are consistently highly ranked among majors that pay you back. It makes sense that these professionals might have fewer regrets about their college experience.
Education majors, while having the second highest response rates for “no regrets”, also had a high percentage of student loan regrets. This aligns with our College Salary Report. Education is consistently ranked high in the most meaningful majors, but also consistently low in majors that pay you back. This translates into a high percentage of education majors that have no college regrets and a high percentage that regret student loans.
Engineering majors, as we have seen, have high earning professions. Math majors, too, rank highly in majors that pay you back. Unsurprisingly, both report lower frequencies of regretting their student loans.
Health sciences, art and social sciences majors most frequently responded with student loan regrets. Social science and art majors are non-STEM fields that may be facing relatively lower salaries. However, the various medical professionals within health sciences may have racked up student loans from years of medical school or post-school technical training. Data for the class of 2018 from the Association of American Medical Colleges reported 77 percent of medical students carried educational debt and had a median student debt of $190,000.
Major Choice, Major Regret
Perhaps the most insightful look into choosing a major is to determine which groups regret their area of study the most. Humanities majors report regretting their area of study at a much higher rate, 21 percent, than other majors. Computer science and engineering majors had the lowest response rates to regretting their area of study – 4 and 8 percent, respectively.
Again, our College Salary Report shows just how low salaries for the highest ranking humanities jobs are compared to those of computer science or engineering. While salary may not be the end all be all of college remorse, financial gain may help justify the commitment of time and money for a college degree.
Higher DEGREEs, Unique Regrets
Deciding to pursue higher levels of education beyond a bachelor’s degree is even more of a commitment of time and money toward the pursuit of knowledge. While some higher level degrees are more or less necessary for certain professions (e.g. a J.D. to practice law) others are more discretionary paths towards expertise in a field. Depending on the area of study, this may have great benefits on career advancement and salary.
The results in our sample show that “no regret” responses are more frequent at higher education levels. Those who obtained a Ph.D. within our sample had the largest component of “no regret” responses. While receiving a Ph.D. may not always be justifiable in a career or salary sense, it can be ample reward for those who are devoted to a field of knowledge. That being said, 10 percent of Ph.D. respondents regretted the time it took to complete their degree and 5 percent regretted obtaining too many degrees. These are the highest percentages within these two categories.
On trend, student loans are the largest regret at each education level. Those with non-M.B.A. master’s degrees reported the highest response rate in this category, 33 percent. Ph.D. respondents had the lowest percentage of student loan responses, at 21 percent.
It may be that the extra time and money towards a master’s degree does not balance out with student loans the way it might with other education levels. Bachelor’s degrees offer the shortest route to earning money and a career. M.B.A.s and J.D.s lead to lucrative professions. Ph.D.’s can grant a level of academic prestige that allows a lifetime pursuit in an area of passion or interest. Non-M.B.A. master’s degrees may offer these benefits with less certainty.
So, Public or Private?
A long standing debate surrounding American universities is whether it is worth it to attend a private college. While private universities generally have smaller student bodies and offer fewer degrees than public universities, it is not so clear if the career outcomes are really different.
By breaking out our sample between those who attended private and public universities, we can determine how the distribution of college regrets changes between the two. The percentage of respondents who reported that they had no regrets about their education is equal between both. Thirty-one percent of both private and public university students chose “no regrets”. Despite the equal percentage of private and public school respondents who have some form of regret, the types of regrets they selected were different.
One of the most dramatic differences observed in this sample is the much higher response rate of private university students regretting their student loans. Private university students reported student loan remorse 9 percentage points more than public university students. The only other regret where private university responses surpassed those of public school students was school/institution choice. However, the responses to this category are quite low among both groups – 3 percent of public and 4 percent of private university students. These particular college regrets may be a result of the higher average tuition costs and student loans of private schools, as shown in our College ROI report.
Public university students report higher response rates for regrets such as poor networking, area of study, and academic underachievement. These may be where a large student body and faculty size can be detrimental to an academic career, or diverge from the college experience of private school campuses.
Regretfully, a Conclusion.
Our research spotlights how college regrets vary by major groups, education levels, school types and different generations of students. Most respondents had regrets, and most regretted their student loans. The only sample where “no regrets” respondents were the majority was for baby boomers. While not always the majority, the frequency of having no college regrets did increase for older respondents, respondents with higher levels of education and those who studied STEM majors.
Humanities majors not only had the lowest rate of “no regrets” responses among major groups, they also had the highest rates of regretting their area of study. This may have to do with the relatively low salaries seen by common professions of humanities majors. When divided by education level, non-M.B.A master’s degrees reported higher regrets of student loans, while Ph.D.’s reported the lowest frequency of student loan regret. These findings reveal the nuanced benefits of higher education levels.
Millennials regret their student loans more than any other generation in our sample, having faced massive tuition increases in their college years. Millennials also have the lowest response rates for having no regrets about their education. Higher average tuition and student loans are likely why private schoolers responded more frequently that they had regrets about student loans than public schoolers.
There are rarely such impactful and defining choices as those made throughout a college career. For many, attending college has become a pillar of becoming an adult and going on to a dream career. This stage of professional growth is often also one of personal growth. While we can only ever hope to cherish our college experience, the outcome of our education is dictated by what we study, the connections we make, where we go to school and the financial resources it costs us.
PayScale Makes College Choices Easier
Between April and May of 2019, 248,000 respondents in the United States took Payscale’s online salary survey. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree were shown the following question:
Looking back on your education what do you most regret?
- Student Loans
- Area of Study (major, minor, concentration)
- School/Institution choice
- Too many degrees/over-education for my career
- Time to complete (too long)
- Academic underachievement
- Not making the right connections (networking with peers/faculty/alumni)
- I have no regrets
We report the breakdown of responses by:
- Baby Boomers – people born between 1946 and 1964
- Gen X – people born between 1965 and 1981
- Millennials – people born between 1982 and 2002
- Bachelor’s Major Groups
- Computer Science
- Health Sciences
- Physical & Life Science
- Social Science
- Education Level
- MBAs and Law Degrees
- School Type