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Is a US college degree worth it?

from David Ruccio

As the costs of a college education soar, and college graduates face more insecure job prospects, the debate about the value of a college education is heating up. An increasing number of critics argue that paying for college is simply not worth it.

That’s why there are so many studies attempting to prove the opposite: that an earnings premium on a college education exists and may be growing. 

The latest is by Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose and Ban Cheah [pdf], for the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (as discussed by Motoko Rich [ht: ja]). Not surprisingly, the authors find a substantial increase in lifetime earnings for college graduates over those who only have a high school diploma, and even more over those who never finish high school.

But the study is interesting not for documenting that education earnings gap (how could it be otherwise?) but for two other aspects: earnings differences that have nothing to do with the level of education, and for the questions that are never asked.

For example, the authors show that different earnings arise not just because of the level of education but because of occupations (such that people with lower levels of education can and often do earn more than those with a higher level), gender (men earn much more than women), and race/ethnicity (whites, with the same level of education, earn much more than blacks and Hispanics).

And then there are all the questions never even posed by the authors. For example, what is the economic situation of college graduates, given increasing levels of indebtedness and rising levels of unemployment? Why is it that workers with only a high school diploma (or less) earn so little in this society? What role does education play—is it a matter of passing on skills or is it a sorting mechanism? Instead of focusing on individuals earnings, what explains the growing income gaps between different social groups? And so on.

The fact is, a college education is becoming increasingly expensive, in both public and private institutions, and students and their families are having a more and more difficult time paying for it. Instead of asking why that is happening, and what its effects are on the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in this society, the authors of studies such as this one are content to demonstrate that a college education is worth it.

The data are clear: a college degree is key to economic opportunity, conferring substantially higher earnings on those with credentials than those without.

Studies like this one are the perfect propaganda machine for the new corporate university.

  1. Pandora
    August 13, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Amen, brother. The “fun” thing about “studies” these days is how they pretend to impartiality. We’ve been bombarded with the lies of these types of studies for so long now that it’s become an embedded “fact” in our collective consciousness.

  2. August 13, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    If you think that study by those folks is vapid or pernicious, take a look at The Undereducated American. http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/undereducatedamerican.pdf It starts with the premise that the college wage premium is too high at 74% and that it will rise to 96% by 2025 unless there is a policy intervention. They calculate the number of additional college educations would be needed to create an oversupply and drive the college wage premium down to their target level of 46% which, they say, is the way to reduce inequality in America. They do not estimate how many more MBAs, J.D.s, and Ph.D.s we need to drive drive down the wages of top management and Wall Street traders.

  3. September 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    A college education has other benefits besides the tangible one of a high salary. Some people enjoy learning for the sake of learning; it exposes you to new ideas and concepts. A degree also shows prospective employers that the candidate is tenacious and has the ability to set a goal and execute it.

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