Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Four-Year Degree is Worth More Than Ever

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The world of higher education was thrown yet another loop this week when the Pew Research Center released a study on the value of a four-year college degree.  It’s long been known that four-year college graduates make more money than students who stopped going to school after earning a high school diploma, but the report suggests that gap is widening for two reasons:  the salaries of college graduates are going up, and the salaries of high school graduates are going down.

How much of a difference are we talking about?  $17,500 a year, among full-time employed 25 -32 year-olds. Since the average college graduate with debt owes about $30,000 at the time they complete their degree, the numbers suggest students are still better off to borrow that high amount, since the costs will more than pay for themselves within a few years of full-time employment.

Combined with the lower unemployment rate among four-year college graduates (4.5% vs. the national average of 6.8% in 2012), the message is clear—four years of college is worth it.

What does this do to current conversations about training after high school?  A great deal. The recent White House Summit on college affordability called on colleges to find ways to make college more affordable for all students, and to create solutions to slow annual increases in tuition.  Minimizing the increase in college costs is always a good idea, but these survey results show that students can engage in thoughtful borrowing plans to pay for college with the assurance they’ll have jobs to pay off the loans, and have significantly higher salaries throughout their careers.  Colleges certainly have a role to play in keeping costs low, but students don’t have to defer their college dreams, as long as they develop a strong educational and financial plan.

The report also gives something more to consider for the “not everyone needs 4 years of college” movement.  After seeing increases in the number of students dropping out of four-year colleges without a degree, some policy makers are promoting other training programs as viable alternatives to four years of college.  Citing the importance of many of the careers available to students without a Bachelor’s degree, leaders are pointing to the vital role community colleges can play in the development of the workforce.

Students with talents and interests in the trades should by all means pursue their passions—but those looking to two-year colleges for a financial advantage over high school graduates are sure to be disappointed.  The Pew research indicates full-time employed 25 to 30 year-olds with an associate’s degree or some college training are making $30,000 a year, while high school graduates are making $28,000—an annual difference of only $2,000.  While some career fields will be exceptions to these numbers (plumbing and spot welding come to mind), the data point a clear path to financial security—and that path runs right through the doors of a four-year degree.

These results offer an alternative approach for policymakers to consider.  Rather than emphasize the importance and financial vitality of education programs other than four-year colleges, perhaps policy makers could find ways to support the efforts of school counselors and others to teach students the necessary skills for college completion.  Too many students approach college thinking their studies will be “just like high school.”  With improved training in college advising, and relief from non-counseling duties, school counselors could present seminars and simulations that teach students how to build the skills of persistence, networking, and problem solving that will lead to a four-year college degree, and a brighter economic future. 

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