Julie Margetta Morgan

Plenty of evidence suggests that, on average, a college degree is worth it. College graduates make an average of 84 percent more over the course of a lifetime than those who only attend high school. The unemployment rate for young college grads is under 5 percent, compared to more than 13 percent for young people with only a high school diploma. And a recent Brookings Institution paper showed that the return on a college investment is more than that on almost any alternative, including stocks, bonds, gold, or the housing market.

Still, it's reasonable to question a college degree's value, and the media focus on this topic every few years is not a bad thing. Rising college tuition, combined with slim job prospects due to the economic recession, leave families with the impression that the risks associated with attending college are beginning to outweigh the rewards.

Adding to these suspicions are a few outstanding examples of college dropouts who are wildly successful, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Students begin to wonder whether they might have been better off working instead of racking up debt for a college degree.

The high cost of tuition, the uncertain job market, and the Mark Zuckerberg phenomenon are not enough to outweigh the ample evidence that college is a safe bet. But they are enough to suggest that individuals, policymakers, and colleges should all be working to shore up a college degree's value.

The calculation of a degree's value is very different for each student. Families must examine the skills the student needs to achieve his or her goals and whether those must be acquired in college. Students can choose high-earning majors like engineering over lower-earning ones like psychology. Or they can also choose to attend less expensive public colleges or institutions that offer significant scholarship and grant aid.

State and federal policymakers can increase the value of college degrees by investing more in higher education through state subsidies to public institutions and grant aid that goes directly to students and families.

Colleges can help students get more value for their money by offering quality, low-cost educational alternatives. They also should consider strategies to lower tuition, including offering online courses at lower cost to students or putting greater emphasis on competency exams to help students cut down on their credit load.

The bottom line is that we should still be encouraging students to attend college. But that doesn't mean we should stop questioning the value of college if it encourages students to make more thoughtful, informed decisions and pressures policymakers to keep all colleges high quality and affordable.


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A College Eduction is a Safe Bet