10/06/2010 03:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

College: It Pays

It was a catchy anecdote, to be sure.

"The fellow who cut my tree down had a master's degree and was an honors grad," said an economics professor in a recent news article.

The professor and reporter cite the example as some sort of evidence that a college education just doesn't pay off. I'd like to think that most people see it for what it is: evidence that a fellow who has a master's degree was hired to cut down a professor's tree.

Regardless of this tale of the learned lumberjack, however, hard evidence supports the value of a college education. According to a College Board report released earlier this month, college graduates on average earned about $22,000 more than those with just a high school diploma ($55,700 compared to $33,800) in 2008. What's more troubling is that the gulf between the two has increased by 13 percent since 2005.

And with the economy in tatters, there's probably little doubt who's suffering more. Unemployment has jumped for both college graduates and for those with a high school diploma. However, the gap in the unemployment rate between the two groups has more than doubled in the last five years. The point is if you don't have a college degree you're far more likely to be unemployed.

The same article with the lumberjack included another neat trick. It listed a smattering of the incredibly successful dropouts, including perhaps the most famous: Microsoft's Bill Gates. Yet over the last decade, Gates has donated billions of his own fortune to promote college education. My guess is, as someone who understands innovation and competitiveness, Gates knows that college is a sound investment.

But even if he didn't, he is a sample of precisely one. Of course, I could tell you the story of a boy who grew up without a father, worked hard in school and in college and went on to become editor of the Harvard Law Review, an attorney, an author, a U.S. senator and now president. But that, too, would be just one story and evidence only that college was instrumental in the life and success of this one person.

Far more compelling however -- for students in my home state of West Virginia and in every
community of every other state -- is that college graduates will earn an estimated $2.8 million over their lifetimes and that their counterparts with high school diplomas will earn about $1.6 million.

It is reassuring that at some point in our history, people also stopped arguing about whether the world was indeed round.

It's precisely because some people are still making the baseless and irresponsible argument
that an investment in college is somehow a bad one that we point to even more research that shows education and a college degree provides more than just economic benefits. The research also establishes a correlation between college and quality of life issues.

College graduates are less likely to be obese or smoke and are more likely to exercise regularly for better health, be more active citizens in their communities, more likely to volunteer, and more likely to participate in the political process by voting. While much of the benefit is economic, the point is that whatever your field of choice, a college education provides the best foundation for almost everyone as they set out to build their futures and their families.

Something tells me that if you ask the lumberjack with the master's whether he wants his own children to pursue a college education, he'd say yes.