With college costs and student loan debts continuing to rise, we have seen an increase in the number of studies and articles questioning whether college is worth it. And yet most of the evidence points to college becoming more valuable, not less.
The latest round of questioning college value was set off by a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, called “Is College Still Worth It? The New Calculus of Falling Returns.” It spurred, among other articles, a piece from Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, similarly titled: “Is college worth it? Read this study.”
The answer is in the study. That answer is yes. The study shows that the median income for families led by a bachelor’s-degree recipient is more than 100 percent greater than the median income for families not led by degree recipients. One hundred percent! In our research, we use a different measure of the college wage premium and find that it in 2017, it was 71 percent, its highest point dating back to when this statistic was first measured, in 1970. The premium is 10 percentage points higher than it was a decade earlier.
The Fed report raises alarm that “wealth premiums” are not increasing as quickly among recent college graduates, except for white graduates. But it is quite a stretch to question the value of college as a result. While wealth can be built through savings, investments and shrewd financial choices, the reality is that, on average, 45 percent of wealth comes from inheritance.
It is hard for a college degree in a single generation to affect that. Wealth is generally built generation upon generation and then conserved as the birthright of the well-to-do. Low-income families have very few tools as their disposal to change their economic condition. They are statistically more averse to borrowing, and they have less access to credit.
Some investment decisions are wise, especially in a period when interest rates are at historic lows. College is one of them. If the choice is between a high school diploma with the resulting low-paying job and a bachelor’s degree that will pay approximately 71 to 100 percent more, the choice is obvious. We have recently been doing research on the return on investment of a college degree. On average, the 40-year ROI of all public colleges, the most affordable option, is $765,000 — including the cost of paying off tuition and college loans. A person who gets a high school diploma and works for 40 years at $10 per hour will make 40 percent less than that.
Wealth has to start somewhere — it rarely begins with a job paying minimum wage or just above it. College attainment may not build wealth, but, based on the major, it does result in an income premium, and is therefore worth it on those grounds alone.
We do no service to the have-nots when we advise them against investing in their futures by going to college. We only exacerbate the divide between them and the haves and offer no solutions for how to bridge it.
College enrollment rates for black and Latino students continue to rise. College graduation rates for Latino students are at record highs. We do not want to go back to the days when students of color were primarily tracked into trade schools and careers that almost always pay less than careers for those with college degrees. At the same time, black students are disproportionately saddled with higher student loan debt, so even when they succeed, e.g., graduate, they still have a deeper hole to dig out of.
Workers in this nation will increasingly need a college education in order to get a good job. We estimate that by 2027, about 70 percent of jobs will require a college credential. Some workers will, indeed, be able to make a fine middle-class living with no more education than a high school diploma. But this slice of the workforce is likely to get smaller, not larger.
To be sure, improvements are long overdue in the way colleges operate. Colleges need to do many things, including becoming more efficient and transparent and partnering with like-minded institutions to offer innovative, student-friendly educational options. That will make them better run and, we hope, less expensive. This would be good for all college students.
But the value of a college degree in the workplace is without question. Raising alarms about the value of college because graduates aren’t able to accumulate wealth more quickly is like saying the graduation party was ruined because the champagne wasn’t cold enough. The road to success starts with one step. That step is still going to college.
Anthony P. Carnevale is founder and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
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