December 6, 2023

Economix: Once Again: Is College Worth It?

The dismal job prospects for new college graduates have revived debates about whether college is “worth it.” The PayPal founder Peter Thiel is among the major skeptics, but there are plenty of others. Check out the comments on yesterday’s article about employment rates for recent grads to see what I mean.

College provides plenty of intellectual and psychic benefits alongside the potential economic ones, granted. Let’s just focus on the economic ones. Is college worth it, economically? My colleagues David Leonhardt and Floyd Norris had a blogging debate about this question, which I encourage you to go back and read. For now I’d just like to highlight a few factors to consider.

It’s true that the job market for new college graduates stinks right now. But you know what? The job market for non-graduates is worse.

People with more skills have a broader range of jobs they can do, and having a postsecondary degree sometimes serves as litmus test for employers who can be picky about hiring.

As a result, unemployment rates decline as workers become more educated:

DESCRIPTIONSource: Bureau of Labor Analysis, via Haver Analytics

College graduates also earn more money than their less-educated peers. That gulf in earnings has only widened in the last few decades: the inflation-adjusted pay of college graduates has risen, and the inflation-adjusted pay of every other group has fallen.

(Aside: People with higher degrees have even lower unemployment rates, and earn even more money.)

Additionally, in a survey of recent graduates from the Heldrich Center at Rutgers — the same survey that produced figures on graduates’ poor job prospects — respondents seemed to wholeheartedly agree that college is indeed “worth it.”

Nearly three-quarters of recent graduates said they believed their degree was as valuable now as they thought it would be when they first enrolled in college. Additionally, three-quarters said their college education did extremely well or pretty well in preparing them to be successful in their first full-time job.

That’s not to say they don’t have some regrets. About that same proportion said they would do something different if they could start college over again. Here are some of the things they’d like a redo on:

DESCRIPTION“Unfulfilled Expectations: Recent College Graduates Struggle in a Troubled Economy,” Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, Rutgers University.

Lots of people would have changed their major, or done an internship, or started looking for work sooner while enrolled. Did you notice what category of regrets got the lowest share of responses?

Wishing they hadn’t gone to college.

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