Is College Worth It?

Peter McPherson and Philip Trostel:

If students across the country judged the value of college by headlines alone, they would come away with a bleak view of higher education. Rising costs. Diminishing value. Questionable career prospects. It’s a small miracle students enroll in college at all. Yet despite the widespread cynicism about higher education, more people are going to college than ever before.

They know investing in their future offers something far more promising than headlines suggest. Students who enroll cite increased earning potential and improved job prospects as their top reasons for pursuing a degree. The value of a college education has never been higher. The close link between college attainment and wages, employment prospects, and job satisfaction is as strong as ever. Even many of the most strident critics of higher education still strongly encourage their own children to pursue a college education. But we need to widen our view beyond individuals to gauge the full value of higher education.

By framing college as an individual benefit alone, we risk omitting the immense societal benefits of college-educated residents and citizens. Compared with individuals whose highest degree is a high school diploma, college graduates are 3.5 times less likely to be impoverished, nearly five times less likely to be imprisoned and almost four times less likely to smoke tobacco regularly. Working-age Americans with bachelor’s degrees are 44 percent more likely to report being in good or excellent health. In 2012, life expectancy at age 25 was an astonishing decade longer for those going to college.