Is College Worth It?

With the high cost of college, more have questioned whether it's worth the price. Tell your clients: For most kids, the answer is still yes.

By Ann Carrns

As the sticker price for four years on campus has ballooned along with worry about student debt, more Americans have been asking whether attending college still makes sense. That’s a tough question, and the answer depends on your specific situation and goals. But considerable data on the financial and social benefits of a college degree suggests that the answer for most students is yes.

Of course, there’s no guarantee a degree will pay off — and you could end up worse off if you take out student loans but don’t finish your degree.

Still, “on the whole, higher education is worth it,” said Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C.

According to an analysis published by the institute in June, there is “overwhelming evidence that pursuing a college education provides substantial economic and noneconomic benefits to students.” Public colleges are more likely to offer value than private ones, the report said, because their cost of attendance is generally lower — an especially important consideration for students from low-income families.

The institute’s analysis used public data to estimate the number of colleges that offer a minimum economic return, called “threshold zero” — defined as producing graduates who, within 10 years, earn at least as much as high school graduates from the same state, plus enough to recoup their total cost of attending college.

Of the roughly 2,900 colleges in the analysis, 83% — a figure including about 93% of undergraduates — met that threshold. For public, four-year colleges, the share was 97%; it was 83% for private, nonprofit four-year colleges; and it was 43% for private, for-profit colleges.

That means that nearly all public and private nonprofit colleges leave students “better off financially” than similar adults who didn’t continue their studies after high school, the institute concluded. On average, the after-graduation earnings of people who attended those schools were almost $9,000 above threshold zero, indicating that students had a “meaningful” increase in their financial well-being after attending college.

About 500 colleges with a total enrollment of 1.5 million students, however, fell short of threshold zero — mostly private, for-profit and private, nonprofit colleges. The study didn’t disclose which schools failed to meet the standard. So how can students avoid those kinds of colleges?

Voight recommends checking the College Scorecard, which is maintained by the Education Department and includes data such as how much a given college typically costs to attend after financial aid; how many of a college’s students graduate on time; how much they have to borrow to attend; and how many repay their loans.

Marisol Cuellar Mejia, a research fellow at the Higher Education Center at the Public Policy Institute of California, was one author of an analysis published in March examining the question of whether college is worth the cost. (The report focused on California, but the trends hold true nationally, she said.)

College graduates, she said, earn more and accumulate more wealth, and they are more likely to own a home and to have jobs with important benefits — like health insurance, paid vacations, retirement plans and flexible work arrangements — than people who end their education at high school.

In 1990, the center’s analysis found, a California worker with a bachelor’s degree earned 39% more than one with just a high school diploma; by 2021, the difference had ballooned to 62%, and was nearly 90% for workers with graduate degrees.

Your choice of major makes a difference, the report noted. Students graduating with degrees in computer science and math have a median salary of $110,000 a year, compared with $65,000 for education majors. Even within majors, there’s a range: Top-earning graduates in health make $120,000 a year, twice as much as the lowest-earning graduates.

Still, the center’s report found, even lower-earning college graduates tend to make more than workers whose education ended at high school.

Sometimes, Cuellar Mejia said, people tell her, “I know somebody with just a high school education who is earning a lot of money.” While that can certainly be true for some, she said, the odds tend to favor those who earn a college diploma. Right now, the report says, California workers with a bachelor’s degree earn median pay of $81,000 a year — but only 12% of those with just a high school diploma earn that much.

“A college degree still gives you the best chances,” Cuellar Mejia said.

c.2024 The New York Times Company. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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