Does College Improve Happiness? What the Gallup Poll Doesn’t Tell Us

The venerable polling organization Gallup released a much-anticipated national survey of 30,000 college graduates on Tuesday, focusing on student satisfaction in the workplace and in life as a whole. I’m not going to spend a lot of time getting into all of the details (see great summaries at Inside Higher Ed, NPR, and The Chronicle of Higher Education), but two key findings merit further discussion.

The first key finding is that not that many graduates are engaged with their job and thriving across a number of elements of well-being (including purpose, social, community, financial, and physical). Having supportive professors is the strongest predictor of being engaged at work, and being engaged at work is a strong predictor of having a high level of well-being.

Second, the happiness of graduates doesn’t vary that much across types of nonprofit institutions, with students graduating from (current?) top-100 colleges in the U.S. News & World Report rankings reporting similar results to less-selective institutions. Graduates of for-profit institutions are less engaged at work and are less happy than graduates of nonprofit colleges, although no causal mechanisms are posed.

While it is wonderful to have data on a representative sample of 30,000 college graduates, adults who started college but did not complete are notably excluded. Given that about 56% of first-time students complete a college degree within six years of first enrolling (according to the National Student Clearinghouse), just surveying students who graduated leaves out a large percentage of adults with some postsecondary experience. Given the (average) economic returns to completing a degree, it might be reasonable to expect dropouts to be less satisfied than graduates; however, this is an empirical question.

Surveying dropouts would also provide better information on the counterfactual outcome for certain types of students. For example, are students who attend for-profit colleges happier than dropouts—and are both of these groups happier than high school graduates who did not attempt college? This is a particularly important policy question given the ongoing skirmishes between the U.S. Department of Education and the proprietary sector regarding gainful employment data.

Surveying people across the educational distribution would allow for more detailed analyses of the potential impacts of college by comparing adults who appear similar on observable characteristics (such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status) but received different levels of education. While these studies would not be causal, the results would certainly be of interest to researchers, policymakers, and the general public. I realize the Gallup Education poll exists in part to sell data to interested colleges, but the broader education community should be interested in what happens to students who did not complete college—or did not even enroll. Hopefully, future versions of the poll will include adults who did not complete college.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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