Despite rising price, college degree still worth its cost

All right, take out your No. 2 pencils. When it comes to a college education:

a.A record number of young adults are going to college

b.Only half of undergraduates get their degree in six years

c.Both of the above

Students are borrowing more to pay for college because:

a.College costs have risen more than four times the rate of inflation for over two decades

b.Family incomes have stagnated

c.Both of the above

Go to the head of the class if you answered "c" to both questions.

My youngest son starts his freshman year of college next week. We'll drop him off at his dorm on Sunday and the next stage of his life begins. It's exciting (and sad; how dare he grow up so fast!).

A college degree is a passport to better earnings and more employment over a lifetime. Employers want educated workers. College graduates are not only paid more than their high-school-only peers, they're also more likely to get jobs with health insurance and an employer-sponsored pension plan.

Almost all the job growth in the economy in the past several decades has been in professions, careers and jobs that require at least some post-secondary education. For instance, over the past decade much of the growth in employment has been in health care, education and government. Jobs that were once filled by high school graduates -- including factory work -- now often require a two-year associate degree or a certificate of accomplishment from a community college.

That said, my concern is with the price paid for a diploma. Price matters, whether it's buying a stock, a home or a college degree. Remember when borrowing for a home was a sure thing? That is until home values plummeted during the Great Recession.

Similarly, the college-and student-lending industrial-complex assures everyone that a college education is always worth it. For more than three decades, students and their parents have funded a college tuition bubble, largely with borrowed money. An ample supply of loans allowed colleges to raise their prices at four times the rate of inflation over the past two decades. Total federal student loans swelled by 99 percent and non-federal student loans by 204 percent, after adjusting for inflation from 1998-99 to 2008-09, according to the College Board. Yet median family income has stagnated over the same time period.

What is the lesson for students and their parents? I'd ignore a fashionable stream of commentary suggesting that a college sheepskin isn't worth it. The job, career, income, intellectual and social rewards of college are too great to pass up. Instead, the message is to borrow carefully. And for all you new college freshman, learn as much as possible, have fun and graduate on time.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for American Public Media's "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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