The Old College Try

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When President Bush remarked at Yale's commencement in June that a “C student can be President of the United States,� he may not have meant to initiate a small national debate on the value of higher education. Columnists buzzed about the President's own academic record, or as one put it, his “preordained acceptance to Yale, regardless of his middling performance� in high school.

So, how do students get accepted to a competitive university? What does a college education provide? And at the end of the day, what good is that degree? To answer these questions, Ipsos-Reid, a global market research firm based in New York, conducted an exclusive survey for American Demographics, from July 8 through July 16. The first part was conducted via telephone, with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans. The second part, conducted by the Ipsos-Reid U.S. Internet Advisory Panel, directed questions online to a representative sample of 500 college graduates.

According to the survey, more than half of all Americans (53 percent) view good grades and test scores as the most important qualifications for gaining admission to an Ivy League university. While this seems to reflect widespread confidence in a national meritocracy, almost a quarter (22 percent) say that having money is the most important factor, and an additional 10 percent think connections trump other qualifications. Opinions differ, however, depending on whether respondents attended an institution for higher learning. Those who have been to college are more than twice as likely as those who were never enrolled to cite connections as the most important admissions factor (16 percent versus 7 percent). And while 23 percent of those never-enrolled think money is the most important factor — even more important than grades and test scores — only 20 percent of college grads think so.

Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. Senator from Nebraska who is now president of the New School University in New York, says that while schools try to admit the most deserving students, money can also play a role. “Accepting students because they have money is understandable, because having money allows you to accept students who wouldn't otherwise be able to pay,� he says.

Getting in to college is only half the story. When asked what their degree had done for them, college graduates are more likely to cite academic and professional benefits than social ones. Fifty-eight percent say that going to college helped them get their first job and 68 percent say it helped them advance their career goals. And the social benefits of college are not lost on grads either. Forty-nine percent say college helped them develop social skills and 13 percent say it even helped them meet their future spouse. The younger the college grads, the more they appreciate the social aspects of their education, with 58 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds citing this benefit, compared with 44 percent of the rest of the graduate population. Women appreciate the social aspects of college (55 percent) more than men (42 percent).

Connections do count. Connections helped some college grads get admitted, and almost half of them say that making connections during college was a key benefit of attending. Forty-five percent of grads say that developing professional contacts and finding mentors was an important function of their college years (45 percent for women versus 42 percent for men).

Interestingly, despite the fact that 62 percent of college grads majored in a vocational discipline, such as business, education or engineering, the study found that the vast majority of them appreciate the liberal arts aspect of their education. Seventy-eight percent agree that their undergraduate degree has been important in giving them a “general level of education necessary to their profession.� The New School's Kerrey is not surprised. He has a pharmacology degree, but got drafted before he was able to practice. Still, he says his college education benefited him by teaching him how to “read, write and think clearly, and to tackle the big questions.�

A finding that will please fundraisers in alumni development offices is the fact that those who say they benefited the most from college are also most likely to have made a donation to their alma mater, or plan on making a donation. For instance, while 42 percent of college grads have donated or plan to donate money to their college, 54 percent of those who say their degree helped them get into graduate school have given something back.

But an even better predictor of who donates is an alumnus' level of involvement while on campus. Of those who pursued “popular activities� in college — including academic clubs (29 percent), social clubs (29 percent), honor societies (24 percent) and the performing arts (23 percent) — roughly 50 percent have donated or plan to donate money to their former college. However, those who participated in less popular activities are even more likely to cough up for the class fund. These include graduates who were involved in orientation and recruitment (14 percent participated and 62 percent give), campus religious organizations (17 percent participated and 60 percent give), fraternities and sororities (17 percent participated and 56 percent give) and athletic teams or clubs (22 percent participated and 56 percent give).

President Bush, of course, was active on his college campus, serving as a member of a fraternity, on the rugby team and in a secret society. And although, in his own words, he did more sleeping than studying in college, he seems to have made something of himself.

What's It Worth to You?

Engineers are most likely to think their undergraduate degree has helped to advance their career, while social science majors say they reaped the most social benefit.

RESPONDENT'S COLLEGE DEGREE WAS IMPORTANT IN:

MAJOR* ADVANCING YOUR CAREER MEETING PROFESSIONAL CONTACTS AND MENTORS OBTAINING FIRST JOB DEVELOPING SOCIAL SKILLS
Engineering 78% 48% 72% 45%
Science 72% 50% 62% 35%
Social Science 72% 49% 52% 62%
Business 67% 39% 53% 50%
Humanities 65% 45% 59% 56%
*Only majors with statistically significant samples are included.
Source: American Demographics/Ipsos-Reid
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