How Much is that College Degree Worth?

How much is a college degree worth? That’s a question of unending debate. There are a number of costs and benefits to going to college. The most obvious cost is financial–tuition, room and board, books, not to mention forgone opportunities to earn an income. For some students, they face the problem of never having the college experience “click” for them.

On the benefits side, you’ve got the chance to indulge the intellect and develop intellectual skills that will serve you later. There’s also the chance to attend a lot of parties and sporting events, cultural activities, and meeting people from around the country and around the world.

Of course, the financial side of things looms large, too. Having a college degree has become a defacto screening device for employers, and it also offers financial rewards. But how large is that reward? The Wall Street Journal offers some numbers.

The College Board has in the past put the number at $800,000, as in that’s how much a college graduate, on average, will earn over what a high school graduate would earn. But others question that number. First of all, the cost of attending college continues to grow at a rate that outpaces inflation.

They [the estimates] don’t take into account deductions from income taxes or breaks in employment. Nor do they factor in debt, particularly student debt loads, which have ballooned for both public and private colleges in recent years. In addition, the income data used for the Census estimates is from 1999, when total expenses for tuition and fees at the average four-year private college were $15,518 per year. For the 2009-10 school year, that number has risen to $26,273, and it continues to increase at a rate higher than inflation.

Dr. Schneider estimated the actual lifetime-earnings advantage for college graduates is a mere $279,893 in report he wrote last year. He included tuition payments and discounted earning streams, putting them into present value. He also used actual salary data for graduates 10 years after they completed their degrees to measure incomes. Even among graduates of top-tier institutions, the earnings came in well below the million-dollar mark, he says.

As the story also points out, averages are … averages, and don’t apply to each person. You may love what you’re doing and do well financially without a college degree–or be stuck in an unsatisfying job that doesn’t pay as much as you might earn doing something else.

I wouldn’t tell anyone “don’t go to college.” But each student must carefully consider himself. It’s good for many people, but not for all. If you’re uncertain about going to college, spending a year doing something else–a ‘gap year’ after high school–may be a good time to sort things out.

What’s the implication for K-12 education? By all means we should give high school students the opportunities to earn college credits through AP classes, whether in the classroom or in online venues. (Indeed, online classes may be a godsend for academic high-achievers attending schools that don’t otherwise have suitable classes for them.)  But  perhaps we should also look into restructuring K-12 so that students interested in something than attending college can get adequate training. Sen. Steve Abrams is one person who has been proposing such an approach. A report published by a commission several years ago, “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” is another. Whatever we do, we should do more to tailor the schooling experience to the wants and needs of students.

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