Study says college ‘almost always worth it’

Liz Goodwin

In the latest salvo in the debate over the value of a college education, a new study concludes that getting any form of post-high school education is "almost always worth it." The merit of the degree applies, according to the study, even if a student attends a very expensive university.

Anthony Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, says the case for graduating college rests on the "college wage premium"--that is, the wage gains that a college-educated person realizes over a lifetime compared with what a high-school graduate earns. That differential has increased from 75 percent in 2002 to 84 percent today.

And that gap isn't likely to close anytime soon. Even if 20 million more people were to get a college degree today, B.A.-holders would still earn 50 percent more than high-school graduates, Carnevale told reporters.

A college-educated worker makes $2.67 million over his or her lifetime on average, compared with $1.3 million for a high-school-educated worker.

But it's not just the level of education that determines earning power, Carnevale said; the field that a college graduate studies may be even more important to a worker's lifetime prospects. Someone in science and engineering with only a B.A. almost always earns more than a teacher with a master's or even a doctorate degree, for example. And the five lowest-earning professions for college graduates are real-estate brokers, auditing clerks, secretaries, counselors and social workers, according to Carnevale's research. One quarter of people who hold two-year associate's degrees actually make more money than people with bachelor's degrees, while 40 percent of those with B.A.s out-earn their counterparts with master's degrees.

Jamie Merisotis, the president of the Lumina Foundation, a higher-education philanthropy group, told reporters that the study "explodes the myth that a college education is less valuable than it used to be." He said instances of people coming into extreme wealth after dropping out of college--such as the rise of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg--are rare. Such success stories are "like getting struck by lightning," Merisotis said.

Concerns over the skyrocketing cost of college tuition--which has nearly tripled since 1980, while median wages have stayed flat--have sparked a national debate about whether colleges are providing genuine value to students. Financial assistance from federal and state sources, and colleges and universities themselves, is up 140 percent since 1991, according to a report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. But students are still taking out more loans to make up the difference, with the average student debt for graduates of public institutions hovering around $24,000.

Combine those rising costs with the grim prospects that graduating into a stalled-out labor market mean for a worker's life-time earnings, and you've got some unhappy recent college grads.

The study also shows that post-secondary education is fast becoming one of the only tickets to the middle class. And historic inequalities of the workforce still can trump educational attainment. Carnevale said that a "disappointing" finding of his study is that women and minorities consistently under-earn in comparison with white males, even when they are doing the same jobs and working the same number of hours. Women on average earn 25 percent less than men. Being a woman or minority is a "wild card" that trumps education level, he writes, as even those with the highest education levels make less. At the doctorate level, however, Asian males out-earn all other workers of other races.