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The Great Debate: Is College Still Worth It?

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DNY59 via Getty Images
DNY59 via Getty Images

Do a simple Google News search on "higher education" and chances are you'll get a lot of hits -- stories about how expensive it is, how much debt students are accumulating, whether college graduates are faring any better in tough economic times than anyone else, whether a college education really translates into a better future.

Cumulatively, They Beg the Question, "Is a College Education Worth It?"

Recent poll results obtained by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) shed some light on what Americans think about the value of a college education. The data shows the public is split on the question, with college graduates more than twice as likely to say, "Yes, it's worth it," than non-college graduates (62 to 30 percent, respectively).

Differences along racial and gender lines were also evident throughout the survey results. Communities of color support increased funding for higher education significantly more than white people -- perhaps because many expected future college attendees will come from these households. The proportion of Hispanics, in particular, is expected to more than double in the not-too-distant future.

And younger women support increased funding for higher education significantly more than men, perhaps because they are another group who feels more strongly that they will benefit from a college degree.

So basically, those who see the greatest value in higher education are those who already have a college degree and those who perceive they have the most socio-economic advantages to gain (women and communities of color).

So What Do We Actually Know About the Value of a College Education?

Public opinion notwithstanding, the data is consistent and convincing. The answer on a number of dimensions is pretty resounding and it is, "Yes, it's worth it."

The Pew Research Center analyzed 2010 Census Bureau data and found that the typical adult with only a bachelor's degree will earn $1.42 million over a 40-year career, or $650,000 more than a typical individual who has only a high school degree. When the cost of college and lost income while in school are factored in, the lifetime difference narrows to $550,000 -- still a significant difference by anybody's measure.

Other studies from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce indicate that the life-time earnings of an individual with a two-year certificate or associate degree is still higher than that of those with only a high school degree. And of course, the lifetime value of a doctorate degree is even much greater.

A college education is also an important differentiator in economic mobility. In our country, we embrace the promise of the "American Dream," the idea that anyone who works hard can make it. Polling by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that 40 percent of us believe it is common for people to start poor and become rich by dint of hard work. The reality is that 43 percent of people who start out at the bottom of the income ladder never make it out at all, and 70 percent spend their entire lives below the middle rung.

How does college attainment affect that discouraging reality? College graduates were 5.3 times more likely to leave the bottom quintile than non-college graduates.

And we've all read the anecdotal stories of recent college graduates who can't get jobs in our struggling economy. Pew completed yet another recent study to determine whether and how much a college degree has protected young workers during the recent economic downturn. The perhaps surprising results are threefold in favor of the degree: Declines in employment and wages were considerably more severe for those with less education, recent college graduates who were able to find jobs were generally not settling for lower wages, and college graduates had more success finding jobs during the downturn than non-college graduates. So while the recession has been hard on most of our young workers, it has been less hard on college graduates than those without a college degree.

The demand for workers with college degrees is expected to only increase in the future. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicted that the share of postsecondary jobs in our economy will increase from 59 to 63 percent by 2020, and we will fall short of the number needed by at least 3 million associate post-secondary degrees or better.

And so, there is much evidence that a college degree is in fact worth it, but that doesn't take away from the need to address the rising cost of the degree. The AASCU survey made it clear that college affordability is of paramount concern to a majority of respondents, especially the populations from which we expect to draw our future students.

Taken Together, These Data Suggest a Number of Priorities to Address

First, we must focus on educating those without a college degree on its value, and foster access and retention so that those who want to attend college can attend -- and finish. And paradoxically, we must further educate white and conservative males on the value of higher education for our economy as a whole, since they are the group least convinced that more state resources are needed to fund it.

Second, we must focus on ensuring and highlighting affordability, which means, among other issues, highlighting the high value offered by many public institutions. While most AASCU survey respondents (60 percent) agree that the cost of tuition at public colleges is too high, public colleges are widely perceived as both a better value and a better bargain than private colleges.

In fact, according to the College Board's "2013 Trends in College Pricing" report, in-state tuition and fees for a public four-year institution were $8,893 for the 2013-14 school year -- less than one-third of that for private institutions. That makes public universities high-value propositions in the higher education market.

Third, we must understand the changing demographics of our future pool of college students and develop effective means to provide access and success to them, especially to our communities of color, with special focus on increasing the participation of Hispanic students.

The data are clear that to ensure our collective future success -- more Americans must appreciate the value of, have access to, be able to afford, and complete college. This message must be disseminated widely, so we can rally the will and resources necessary to make it happen.