An examination of Google Trends data from 2005 to 2023 highlights a steep rise in queries questioning if college is worth the time, expense, and work. This article explores the trends for these terms across all 50 states, examining the key hotspots and revealing possible regional narratives.
Between late nights spent cramming for tests and massive student loans, it's not surprising that this question is top of mind for the average American college student. College is more expensive than ever, and the average federal student loan debt balance is over $37,000.
The Cultural Currents Institute, one of the world's leading education PR firms, analyzed Google search trends for the term "Is College Worth it?" from 2004 to the present. We found that searches for the term as a proportion of total search volume have surged over 1,400% since Google began reporting the data. These searches present a unique opportunity to explore this evolution from a novel angle, revealing a staggering increase in specific searches that may indicate that a user is questioning if college is a worthwhile endeavor.
The data is displayed here using Google's proprietary 100 point system, where 100 represents the all-time peak for the term, 50 represents 50% popularity from peak, and so on.
There is a fairly consistent pattern of peaks and valleys in the data. Search volume falls to a seasonal low in June and July. During the summer, college is out of session, and is no longer top of mind for students. September and January typically have the highest peaks. When school is initially back in session, students are experiencing the highest stress and demands of a new school year.
Many individuals today question the necessity of attending college due to:
Data from the National Student Loan Data System indicates student debt has grown at an alarming pace. Federal student debt has increased from $516 billion in 2007 to $1.5 trillion in 2023. The average federal student loan debt balance is approximately $38,000 per borrower. Increasing costs push potential students to ask, "Is College Worth It?"
Student debt is growing due to many factors:
The regional differences highlighted below are significant, offering a geographical landscape of questioning across America. Some analyses have posited that Republicans are much less likely to pursue higher education.
This Pew survey reports a "majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year." Meanwhile, "most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years."
It is natural, then, to assume Republican-leaning states would be the most likely to question the need for higher education. And while these surveys reveal a higher level of distrust of public institutions, the Google trends data suggests there is not a high correlation between Republican leaning states and interest in the term, "Is College Worth It?"
In the last three years, the following ten states had the highest search volume for the term:
*State party based on the vote in the 2020 presidential election
Google Trends data was collected for the search term "Is College Worth It?" for all 50 U.S. states and D.C. from January, 2005 to September of 2023. Google's proprietary 100 point scoring system was used. In the line graph, the term's search popularity was displayed relative to the all-time peak for the term. In the map, normalized search volume is displayed relative to the state with highest volume, and proportional to all other searches in the region. In this system, 100 represents the highest popularity for the term, 50 represents half the popularity, and so on.
Google Trends data is widely regarded as a strong source for measuring American public interest. According to a 2021 paper published in American Behavioral Scientist found that "this method has predicted the real winner in all the elections held since 2004."
CCI is a full service global PR, marketing, and market research firm headquartered in Austin, TX specializing in education, CPG marketing, and fintech PR. We study trends in public opinion and build multichannel campaigns to suit client objectives. Clients range from pre-seed startups to Fortune 500 enterprises.