For decades in America, we have viewed a college degree as the ticket to a middle class life. Work hard and get an education and you could get a decent job, buy a house, have a family, live a relatively comfortable life, and retire. In my family, my grandfather did not even go to college; he received technical training when he served in the army in World War II, and came back and started his own small business repairing household electronics. With his income alone, he was able to support a family of five, buy a house and a car, and save for retirement.
But as student loan debt continues to soar, an increasingly common question people have been asking is this: is college still worth it?
Many recent news articles and opinion pieces have taken the position that yes, absolutely college is worth it, because college graduates earn way more on average than people who do not pursue or complete college. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that people with four-year college degrees made 98% more per hour, on average, compared to people without a degree. Some studies have suggested that the net earnings of college graduates may exceed that of non-college graduates by as much as $1 million during a person’s lifetime. That’s huge, and it’s not something to take lightly.
But it’s not that simple. The gap in earnings between college grads and non-college grads does not tell the whole story. Wages have stagnated or dropped across the board for most workers during the past decade, and their purchasing power has declined enormously. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that between 2007 and 2012, the real wages of young college graduates actually dropped by 7.6%. The real wages of people without a college degree declined even more. A survey by the National Association of Colleges found that only 25.5% of college graduates had secured a job before graduation, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the unemployment rates of recent college graduates is more than twice that of other segments of the working population.
It’s not that college grads are doing really well. It’s that they are not doing quite as badly as people who did not complete college. But does that mean that college is worth it?
When you add student loan debt to the equation, it gets even more muddled. As I blogged about a few weeks ago, the Class of 2014 is the most indebted class in history, with average undergraduate student loan debt of $33,000, and at least 70% of students graduated with debt this year. Prior to that, the Class of 2013 was the most indebted, and before that, it was the Class of 2012. Anyone see a pattern here? There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Class of 2015 will not be in an even worse position.
And study after study shows that people who have student loan debt are significantly less likely to purchase cars, buy homes, and save for retirement. They may delay or forgo having a family. And studies have shown that the wealth accumulation of people with student loan debt lags significantly behind college grads who do not have student loan debt, which means that much of an entire generation may have to work longer, or retire in poverty.
So when 70% of our college students are graduating with debt that averages $33,000, and they are entering an economy where employment prospects are dim and their real wages are stagnating or dropping, I think many families are understandably struggling with the difficult question about whether their kids should go to college. If you can go to college with grants, scholarships, or by paying your own way with relatively minimal student loan debt, I think there’s a strong argument that college is worth it, even in today’s environment. But taking on significant debt for that degree? I just don’t know.
I strongly believe that a well-educated population is truly critical to a robust economy, equal opportunity, social mobility, and a functioning democracy. I want college to be worth it for everyone. But in today’s world, wanting that may not be enough.