Is college still worth it? You bet

by Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.)
The evidence is in: Higher education remains the surest route to full-time employment and long-term success.

As a Brookings Institution study declared just last week, "the returns to college attendance are much higher than other investments, such as stocks, bonds and real estate."

And the evidence also is in on how individuals should respond to these trends.

For pursuing schooling after high school does carry some risk. A few land mines await; luckily, they're well marked, with signs reading "Failing to graduate" and "Too much debt."

In other words, "while college may be a great investment, it's not like investing in the stock market," the New York Times' "Economix" blog noted in March.

"A prospective student can't just fork over some money and let someone else worry about how to make it grow. ... (Instead,) investing in education by enrolling in college is like investing in health by joining a gym: an excellent idea, but only for those who will actually go and break a sweat."

That attitude and the determination to avoid excessive borrowing are the secrets to a strong college career.

Why did the percentage of 18-24-year-olds enrolled in college jump from 35 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2010? Because Americans are good judges of their own self-interest.

"In most respects, a college degree has never been more valuable," the Brookings study declared. "Recent college graduates earn more money and have an easier time finding employment than their peers who only have a high-school diploma."

A Gallup study in September said the same. "U.S. college graduates and those ages 25 to 54 are the most likely to hold full-time jobs with an employer," Gallup reported. "Those Americans with no more than a high-school degree are the least likely to have the type of jobs most strongly linked to gross domestic product."

Such findings -- and there are many -- came into question in April, when an Associated Press report claimed that 53 percent of recent college grads are either unemployed or working in a job that doesn't require a degree.

But the claim is an outlier: "These numbers are hard to fathom, and the more you compare them to other measures of unemployment, the more bizarre they seem," an account in The Atlantic magazine noted.

Last month, Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic's associate editor, looked into findings more closely. The findings were based on Bureau of Labor Statistics assessments of how much education is needed to do a job.

And "as Stephen Rose of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce explained to me, the over-qualification problem is easily exaggerated," Weissmann reported.

"Rose argues that the BLS numbers are out of date and don't give a realistic picture of which jobs really require higher education."

For example, insurance agents used to need only a high-school diploma, and the BLS still lists the job that way. But "half of all insurance agents now have a BA, and they make 40 percent more than their high-school educated peers," Weissmann reported.

Nursing and law enforcement are similar careers where degrees once were unnecessary but now can pay off. And at Georgetown, Rose's own estimates say that 15 percent -- not 53 percent -- of recent graduates are working in jobs that don't require a degree.

Here's another finding -- maybe the most meaningful of all:

A Rutgers University workforce center recently surveyed graduates of the classes of 2006-2011. Plenty said they'd do something different; for example, 37 percent said they would have chosen their major with more care.

But when asked if they would have avoided college entirely, here's how many answered yes:

Three percent.

Don't drop out, avoid excessive debt, and know that all majors are not created equal; more on those rules in tomorrow's editorial. Meanwhile, remember this from The New York Times: "Economic evidence consistently and compellingly documents the value of postsecondary education in general." That's been true in the United States for decades, and it remains true today.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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(c)2012 Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.)

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