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College Is Still Worth It

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The Great Recession has caused many of us to rethink our basic assumptions about economic life. Numerous assumptions about investing and planning have been shaken, whether one is talking about real estate (which doesn't always go up in value, apparently) or the stock market. This loss of consumer confidence has also affected how people look at higher education and it is not hard to find commentary that is skeptical of the benefits of college, particularly when one looks at the problem of skyrocketing tuition and student loan debt.

I've written about the issues of student loan debt and the need to reform certain aspects of higher education, so I'm certainly not coming at this issue from the perspective of someone who blindly supports the status quo in higher education. However, I've also written about the benefits of college and the misconceptions a lot of people have about unemployment and how it affects university graduates, particularly liberal arts and humanities graduates. Recently, the Pew Charitable Trusts came out with a report that supports what many of us have been saying to critics of higher education: While the system has its problems, by and large those with college degrees are better off than those without them, even during the recent economic turmoil.

The Pew report, which can be found here in its entirety, makes several basic points that should be mentioned anytime someone claims that higher education isn't a good investment:

• Although all 21-24-year-olds experienced declines in employment and wages during the recession, the decline was considerably more severe for those with only high school or associate degrees.

• The comparatively high employment rate of recent college graduates was not driven by a sharp increase in those settling for lesser jobs or lower wages.

• The share of non-working graduates seeking further education did not change markedly during the recession.

• Out-of-work college graduates were able to find jobs during the downturn with more success than their less-educated counterparts.

These aren't trivial observations and they now have even more statistical support than before. The general economic benefits of getting a degree are still pretty clear. That doesn't mean that any college degree plan is a good one and any sensible approach to higher education, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, should include a clear-eyed analysis of what one is likely to pay to and receive from a given school.

Moody's Investors Service also came out with a report in recent days, which stated that many lower-tier private colleges are suffering declines in enrollment while higher-tier private colleges and flagship public universities are not. This isn't necessarily a bad development. The flight to quality shouldn't be discouraged and schools that charge an Ivy League level of tuition without providing the sort of academic environment or improved career prospects that would justify such high prices should face scrutiny about their tuition levels.

It is simplistic and false to claim that more education always leads to more income or better job opportunities. It is also correct to point out that excessive student loan debt is a terrible burden that may not be justifiable for certain schools or fields of study. But that doesn't mean that it's good advice to tell young people who want to go to college and who are prepared to do so that they shouldn't do so because it's not worth the time or the price. Those with college degrees are still more likely to be employed than those without them and their prospects aren't bleak. While the phrase caveat emptor is a necessary one to consider in picking colleges and degree programs, the Great Recession shouldn't claim the idea that higher education is a ticket to a better future as one of its victims.