Just half of college alumni feel it was worth it to take out loans to attend college, with even lower levels of satisfaction from Black and Latino alumni about their loans. But borrowers who feel their college gave them resources and support to get a good job were eight times more likely to feel that their student loans were worth it.

These key findings, based on the nationally representative Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey, were released this month as part of the ongoing Strada Public Viewpoint Work and Education Research. The survey’s novel look at the perceptions of borrowers comes amid growing concerns about fast-rising student debt levels, declining college enrollments in the U.S., and doubts about the return on investment from attending college.

“In the pandemic recession, people with higher levels of education have done much better, but yet the perceptions about whether or not higher education is worth it are actually getting more negative among people who don’t have college degrees,” Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director of research for the center, said in a webinar about the survey findings.

If better career support in college is crucial to people feeling their loans were worth it, what can colleges do to better connect higher education to jobs? Here are several ideas suggested by panelists during the event:

  • Ensure that experiential learning opportunities, such as paid internships, are available to all students and structured so they help bolster academic experiences. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has published guidelines for creating “high-impact” internships and integrating them into the curriculum.

    “Experiential learning experiences for students not only help them get a good job, they also help them complete,” said Courtney McBeth, senior vice president of Strada Impact operations.

  • Create paid internships for junior and senior college students to serve as peer mentors for incoming students. This can pay off for mentors, who get experience that can help them in their careers, and for the students who receive peer advising and are more likely to stick with college and get to graduation.

    Significant differences in the salaries of college graduates, particularly in their first year in the job market, will persist, said panelist Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice for The Education Trust, “until we’re able to get more students the exposure that helps them get that first job at a better salary.”

  • Work with employers to ensure that internships and externships include financial support beyond salaries, particularly the sort of wraparound services and advising that can help students maximize their experiential learning.

    “How do we get more employers to jump in and offer those paid internships to create those pathways?” McBeth said.

  • Colleges should get more creative about virtual career mentoring, such as by offering these services in the evening to students who are working and attending class during daytime hours.

    “This is a moment when institutions should throw out the usual playbook and start thinking really creatively about how to leverage technology and about multipurpose, creative ways to provide that career support,” McBeth said.

Understanding how people feel about their student loans is a key part of learning about their motivations for attending college, according to Laura Perna, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and a national expert on college access and success.

“People make decisions based on their perceptions,” Perna said during the event. “They decide where to go to college, whether to go to college, and whether to use loans based on what they think about them, so I think getting at perceptions is really interesting.”

Perna pointed to equity gaps in labor market returns for people who hold the same type of college credential, noting that the risk of taking out a loan to attend college isn’t distributed equally in society.

“Black borrowers have less wealth,” Del Pilar said. “So they may be less satisfied because of their experience with debt and racism in the workforce.”

In the news from Strada