Is college worth the cost? Pay gap says yes

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2014 - 6:24 PM

Earnings gap between those with and without a degree is widening.

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Americans’ certainty that college is worth the investment in time and money has been shaken since the Great Recession. Stories abound about recent college grads who’ve endured prolonged unemployment or landed in jobs that do not require a hard-earned, high-priced degree.

The anecdotes aren’t wrong. The jobless rate for college grads younger than 25 has been consistently higher than the national average since 2008. Underemployment for recent college grads was higher immediately after the 2008 recession than after previous recessions, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Those employment woes make the latest report from the Pew Research Center noteworthy. Its title: “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.” Its point: A college education may not be the sure ticket to a middle-or-better income that it once was — especially for nonscience majors — but settling for less schooling is a bad bet that’s getting worse.

Among 25- to 32-year-olds, the average annual income of college grads working full time is $17,500 more than those whose formal education ended with high school, Pew reported. College grads also are more likely to be working and more satisfied in their jobs. Those disparities “have never been greater in the modern era,” the report said.

That widening gap should spur more college-going and redouble both public and private efforts to make it affordable. That’s particularly true in Minnesota, where 74 percent of job openings by 2020 are projected to require some postsecondary training, Georgetown University projects.

Pew’s report should also spark more concern for Americans who didn’t go to college. Increasingly, the economy is consigning them to dead-end jobs. Those jobs aren’t going away, a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis suggests. But they don’t pay a living wage, and Pew says that problem is getting worse.

Government policies can make a difference for low-wage workers; a higher minimum wage would help. Employer-sponsored worker training at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities institutions could be expanded. And unions have a constructive role to play by offering apprenticeship programs.

More college and career counseling would also help. High schools have long skimped on such counseling. When the economy was more robust, that may have been acceptable. But today, young people deserve help in seeing that, despite complaints to the contrary, a postsecondary education is still very much “worth it.”

  • Widening gap

    Today’s U.S. college grads 25 to 32 working full time earn a median annual income of $45,500, or 17 percent more in inflation-adjusted dollars than their counterparts made in 1965. By comparison, the median income today for Americans of the same age with only a high school diploma is $28,000, or 11 percent less than in 1965.

    Pew Research Center, Feb. 11, 2014.

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