"Is college a lousy investment?" This was the question posed in a Newsweek cover story in the fall, a blunt challenge to America's long-standing, nearly sacrosanct belief in the value of a college education.
Author Megan McArdle argues that an increasing number of college graduates are leaving campus with mountains of student debt, only to wind up behind a counter at Starbucks (an anecdote so prevalent that Jordan Weissmann, writing for The Atlantic, dubs it "the barista principle").
The lingering economic recession, a weak job market, and rising tuition costs have given rise to a proliferation of national media stories questioning the value of higher education. This disillusionment is resonating. A 2011 Pew Research study found that 57 percent of Americans now believe U.S. colleges and universities fail to provide students with good value for the money.
Our faith in the American dream — and higher education's ability to provide access to it — has been shaken.
Of course, college's return on investment in strict financial terms depends on how much you paid for your degree and the marketability of your chosen field. But to promote the belief that college is no longer a wise investment is a grave disservice to parents and students everywhere.
While a college credential does not guarantee economic security, the lack of a credential most certainly places individuals at greater risk of poverty and limits earning potential for years to come. And, as a nation, falling rates of educational attainment undermine our future economic growth and competitiveness.
A report released last summer by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, "The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm," looks at employment trends by education level dating back to the late 1980's. The verdict? The benefits of a college credential far outweigh the costs, even and especially during the recent recession. Consider:
Nearly 80 percent of the 7.2 million jobs lost were held by people with a high school diploma or less, while jobs for individuals with at least a bachelor's degree actually increased by 187,000.
Since early 2010, when the national recovery began, employment for bachelor's and graduate degree holders increased by 2 million, and employment for individuals with an associate degree or some college increased by 1.6 million. In contrast, people with a high school diploma or less continued to fall behind, losing 230,000 jobs.
Among recent college graduates, the unemployment rate is 6.8 percent, higher than the 4.5 percent for college graduates overall. But both rates are substantially lower than the unemployment rate among recent high school graduates, which is 24 percent.
Furthermore, the report reaffirms the once-popular Kentucky marketing slogan, "Education Pays." College graduates continue to enjoy substantially higher wages than high school graduates, and this advantage accrues over time. In 2010, a U.S. bachelor's degree holder made, on average, nearly twice as much as a high school graduate. An associate-degree holder made around 20 percent more. Over a lifetime, a bachelor's degree holder can earn 84 percent more than a high school graduate. The Kentucky results, outlined in a new Council on Postsecondary Education policy brief, "College Still Pays." include:
Workers with a high school diploma or GED are twice as likely to be unemployed than those with a bachelor's degree. The unemployment rate for the former is 10 percent, compared to 5 percent for the latter. For workers without a high school diploma or GED, the unemployment rate is 16 percent.
Those associate degrees or some college can expect to earn $289,000 more than high school graduates over a 40-year career, using an annual wage increase of 1 percent. College graduates can anticipate an additional $879,000 in earnings, while those with graduate degrees stand to earn an additional $1.34 million.
Yes, college affordability is a real problem and, yes, job creation has been sluggish. But students can obtain a postsecondary degree in Kentucky without racking up unsustainable debt. Kentucky's average student loan debt was $22,287, substantially lower than the national average of $26,600.
Four-year colleges and universities offer grants, scholarships, and work-study opportunities to make college more affordable. Community and technical colleges offer associate degrees and certificates in high-paying, high-demand technical fields that can be completed in two years or less. High school students can reduce college costs by taking advantage of advanced placement, dual credit and college-level exam options.
Experts predict that by the year 2020, 56 percent of Kentucky's jobs will require some postsecondary education. Individually and collectively, college continues to offer a high rate of return and the best chance of achieving long-term security and prosperity. There is really no safer investment we can make.
Bob King is president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.