Is College Worth It? Yes, But Not Always

Is it still worthwhile to attend college?

This has been a constant question, and as an economist and higher education researcher, I can wholeheartedly say yes. The data are clear: individuals with at least some college education make more money than those with only a high school degree. And let us not forget about the non-monetary returns, such as better working conditions, lower rates of disability, and increased civic engagement.

However, the conversation has become more complicated as research has pointed to another important fact: yes, college is worth it, but not always. We no longer think that all educations are financially good investments—the specifics matter. The answer for any student depends upon three important factors: the college attended, the field of study, and the cost or debt taken.

First, the college a student attends makes a difference, as we can see from the Payscale data. But these recent data underscore a longer-term trend. In a 1999 study, a co-author and I documented increasing inequality among college-educated workers1. While those near the top of the income distribution (i.e., the 90th percentile) experienced larger returns to their educations over time, after accounting for inflation, those near the bottom of the distribution (i.e., the 10th percentile) earned less in 1995 than 1972. Our examination of the reasons behind these changes highlights the important role of increasing segregation in higher education, where the top students have become more and more concentrated at institutions with much greater resources. The colleges rated “most competitive” often spend more than three times per student than “less competitive” colleges.

However, selectivity rating alone does not necessarily predict which schools have the highest rates of student success. A 2009 study documents the fact that graduation rates differ not only by college selectivity but also within a selectivity group. For example, among colleges rated as “very competitive,” six-year graduation rates averaged from 30 percent for the bottom 10 schools to 82 percent for the top 10 schools. Selectivity does not necessarily guarantee high levels of degree completion.

A large part of the problem to understanding which colleges are good investments is the lack of good measures of college quality. Most existing measures rely heavily on the academic achievements of students before they even step foot on the college campus. Meanwhile, there are few measures of the quality of the postsecondary learning experience or the value-added to the student. Hence, we rely on indicators such as earnings and loan default rates. While it is helpful to have this information to establish minimum thresholds of what might be a financially worthwhile education, they are not sufficient to help students compare possible colleges and make the decision about where they, as individuals, might maximize their benefits.
The second thing that increasingly matters in college investments is the field of study. While many students do not work in the field of their college major, typically, students majoring in engineering and the sciences reap the largest benefits. However, income is not the only thing that varies by major: as emphasized by the Great Recession, unemployment rates also differ by field of study. Interestingly, although Education majors may not make the most money, they have among the lowest unemployment rates.

The first two factors, the chosen college and major, focus on potential benefits, but those benefits must be compared to costs to determine whether a college education is worthwhile. We focus most of our attention on price and debt load as a measure of the burden of college costs. Debt is a reality of higher education today, and some debt is fine if it makes possible a beneficial educational investment. However, the level of debt that is reasonable depends greatly on the school attended and major. One might judge $10,000 of total debt for an engineering degree to be fine, while the opposite would be true for a six-week certificate program.

Unfortunately, students typically have such poor counseling on how much debt is appropriate given their plans, and with large levels of unmet financial need, many turn to multiple sources of debt, such as credit cards and private loans, without fully understanding how this will affect them over the longer term. Moreover, recent graduates (or dropouts) fresh out of school have little appreciation for how their investments may pay off 10 years from now when their current reality is living at home with their parents. In other words, it’s difficult to internalize long-term benefits when the costs are so heavily weighed up front.

Ultimately, knowing whether college is a good investment depends on which college, which major, at what price (or debt). Looking at the averages is no longer as meaningful, given the importance of match for an individual student with specific interests, talents, and resources. And while I would underscore the fact that for the vast majority of students, most combinations of college/major/debt they would choose are worthwhile investments, we have reached a time when the benefits of college may not far exceed the costs for increasing numbers of students.

Even if only a small percentage of investments are “bad”—ones in which the college attended has low levels of success and gives credentials with little value while making students take out large amounts of debt—we have reached an enrollment level in which a small percentage translates into thousands and thousands of students each year. And that is a problem that cannot be ignored.

1. Hoxby, Caroline and Bridget Terry Long (1999) “Explaining Rising Inequality among the College-Educated.” National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 6873.
2. Hess, Frederick M., Mark Schneider, Kevin Carey, and Andrew P. Kelly. (2009) Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t). American Enterprise Institute.