Anthony P. Carnevale

There's a lot to get upset about when it comes to college.

The price tag keeps spiraling ever upward. The financial aid process is intrusive and byzantine. Students and their parents are borrowing more than ever to meet the tab even as the median working-age household earned roughly 7 percent less in 2010 than in 2000. The wages of college graduates over the past decade have been stagnant (women) to down (men). Far too many young adults drop out of college owing big bucks on their student loans.

That said, the current fad for totting up the negatives and dismissing the worth of college is wrong. Instead, I think the unmistakable message from the brutal economy of recent years is that postsecondary education -- from a community college certificate to a B.A. to a master's in engineering -- is more valuable than ever. For most young adults, postsecondary education has become a necessary -- even if not guaranteed -- ticket into a middle-class job and lifestyle over a lifetime.

Put it this way: For all the controversy swirling over the costs and benefits of a college education, the genuinely depressing job and earnings problems in America are concentrated among workers with only a high school diploma and less (especially men).

The labor market is harsh, with more than 25 million people unemployed, involuntarily working part time, and marginally attached to the labor force. Still, people with postsecondary education are faring better than their less educated peers. For instance, in October, the unemployment rate for workers 25 older with a B.A. or more was 4.4 percent. The comparable figure for high school only was 9.6 percent and for less than high school 13.8 percent. The share of jobs requiring postsecondary education has increased from about half in the 1970s to more than three quarters currently, according to researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The jobs pay better, too. In 2010, the median earnings of male and female college graduates and more working full-time was about double their high school diploma-onl peers.

Parents and students need to be extremely wary of taking on too much debt to pay for college.

They should embrace the wisdom of working toward a postsecondary degree and adapting a green eyeshade mentality of shopping for the best deal possible. Nevertheless, the lifetime return on investment on postsecondary education remains compelling.


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