Survey: UW System grads mostly satisfied with college experience, outcomes

Alumni also express concerns about debt and value of their degrees

By Mike Nichols

May 5, 2022 – A survey of over 3,000 University of Wisconsin System graduates who have already been out of school for five or 10 years paints a picture of largely satisfied and upwardly mobile young professionals who are, nevertheless, often overwhelmed by debt and frequently unsure their bachelor’s degrees were worth it.

The National Alumni Career Mobility Survey was sent to approximately 46,000 UW graduates from the 13 four-year UW institutions at the very end of 2020. Survey results were compiled by the middle of 2021 but, except for some data for specific schools, have not previously been made public.

The goal was to gauge career and education satisfaction, civic involvement and degree relevance among other things. But the findings also shed light on when and why students choose majors, how majors relate to eventual careers, and debt burdens – increasingly nettlesome issues for both graduates and policymakers.  

Most respondents were positive about key aspects of their education and trajectory.

Fully 87% had fulltime jobs and 26% had already earned additional degrees. Approximately 5.1 % were unemployed and seeking work at a time during the pandemic when the U.S. unemployment rate was 6.7%; another 23% felt they were underemployed.

Approximately 82% of all respondents said they were satisfied with their career thus far and the same percentage said they were satisfied with their level of responsibility. Eighty-five percent said they found their work “meaningful,” and 87% said they thought their position provided opportunities for further learning and skill development.

The data overall indicates even underemployed graduates were largely sanguine in many ways. At the same time, it raises important issues about degree relevance and cost.

Only 61% felt their bachelor’s degree was “worth the tuition” they paid.  

Tuition at four-year UW schools – not including room and board -- currently ranges from $7,400 to $10,700 per year for Wisconsin residents, depending on the institution. Out-of-state students currently  pay as much as $38,600 plus room and board. Twenty percent of respondents were not state residents at the time they attended school here.

Over 70% said they incurred debt while earning their bachelor’s degree and 16% said someone else incurred debt for them. The survey did not ask how much but, according to other data sources, there are 727,000 student loan borrowers in Wisconsin with average total debt of $32,000. Among those surveyed in the NACM survey, 74% of graduates five years out were still paying off their debt and slightly more than half who were ten years out were still paying.

Fully 40% of them overall say the debt is “overwhelming.” And – despite the positives – only 46% agreed or strongly agreed their “bachelor’s degree was worth (the) student loan debt.” At the same time, a significantly higher percentage, 61%, agreed or strongly agreed “my bachelor’s degree is worth the tuition I paid” – suggesting some differentiate between “tuition” and “debt” or perhaps did not pay their own tuition.  

When the survey was administered in late 2020, over 83% said they were able to pay their bills every month but only 49% said their student loan debt was “manageable” – a seeming contradiction that might be explained by the fact that most borrowers have not been required to pay their loans since the spring of 2020, eight months before they were asked the questions.

Feelings about the general benefits of the experience and the value of a bachelor’s degree are more positive than attitudes regarding the efficacy and relevance of specific degrees – especially as graduates grow older.

Eighty percent said they were satisfied with their “bachelor’s degree educational experience” and the vast majority, 77%, did feel the bachelor’s degree helped them get started in their career. But the further away from graduation they move the less relevant the degree becomes. Slightly more than 68% of graduates who were five years out said their position was “related” to their major.” Only 61% who were 10 years out said the same thing. Higher percentages, in the meantime – 79% of 2016 grads and 76% of 2011 grads – felt their position required them to “use the skills” learned during the time they worked toward their degree.

Respondents were not asked to name specific “skills” per se but were asked about whether they agreed or strongly agreed they had gained certain “competencies.” Ninety percent, for instance, agreed or strongly agreed they gained competency in critical thinking; 68% in technology.

The survey results contain a trove of consequential data about specific campuses, comparisons to other American education institutions and fascinating findings on when and why students choose to pursue degrees and career paths. Fewer than one in five of the respondents – individuals still only in their late 20s or early 30s for the most part – said they decided on their current career path in high school; only 36% had decided about their current career path while earning their bachelor’s degree. Over 45% said they decided on their career path after graduating or were still deciding.

All that should be of interest to policymakers, parents and, perhaps most importantly, incoming students and high schoolers. The Badger Institute will delve into much of that in the coming months but it’s already clear that some of the overarching questions are whether the way students and families and taxpayers fund college is properly aligned with productivity – that is, what students end up doing with their degree, how much specific degrees matter in the end and how overwhelmed they feel by the money they owe as life moves forward.   

Mike Nichols is the president of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.