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, degree in hand, 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 with a growing number of Americans; a 2011 Pew Research study found that over half of Americans (57 percent) 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. Some students reap greater financial rewards than others. But to promote the belief that college is no longer a wise investment is a grave disservice to parents and students everywhere. Not only is this line of argument inaccurate, it is dangerous. 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,” provides something the Newsweek piece does not — statistical evidence. The report looks at employment trends by education level dating back to the late 1980s. The verdict? The benefits of a college credential far outweigh the costs, even and especially during the recent economic recession. Consider the following findings:
• Nearly 80 percent of the 7.2 million jobs lost during the recession 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.