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Farrell: Is college worth the cost? Yes, but ...

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL
  • August 11, 2012 - 8:56 PM

Last Sunday, I participated in a Fringe Festival event with the Theater of Public Policy, an improv comedy troupe co-founded by host Tane Danger. The theater uses comedy to bring critical public policy issues to life. I was the straight man, and the comedians riffed off of bits and pieces of what I said. The evening was a wonderful combination of laughs and seriousness. The topic: "Is a college education worth it?"

Timing for the evening was propitious, because around this time of year parents and students are writing checks to cover this fall's college bills.

To cut to the chase, my answer is that a college education is worth the investment. But that bottom-line perspective comes with some important caveats, as you will see.

Still, I think Terry Fitzgerald, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, captured the sentiment best.

"Step back for a minute," he said to me during an interview about the economics of a college degree. "If I'm talking to a 17-year-old, am I really going to tell her, 'Don't go to college?' No!"

It has been a tough couple of years for young college graduates. A woman in the audience said she graduated from college several years ago. She's still looking for the kind of job that opens up a career and offers benefits. Sad to say, she has plenty of company. The real (inflation-adjusted) wages of young college graduates are down over the past decade.

Student loan debts, which now account for 35 percent of all consumer debt, are a financial handicap for far too many young adults. A recent survey of college graduates found that 40 percent of respondents said their student loans had caused them to delay making a major purchase, such as a home or automobile.

Here's the thing: The Great Recession has been brutal on most workers, but those without a college degree have suffered the most. To give a recent example from the latest jobs report: For workers with a college degree or better, the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. That hurts, but for workers with only a high school degree, the jobless rate was 9.1 percent. And for those with less than a high school diploma, 14.1 percent.

The message is in the market: Education matters, perhaps more than ever. College is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for gaining access to middle-class jobs and lifestyles.

Now for my two critical caveats. The first is to borrow with extreme care. Parents and their students should think through the financial downside as well as the upside of their college choices. Too much debt is a mistake. Everyone should adopt a green-eyeshade mentality and shop for the best deal. Borrow as little as you can with federal student loans. Avoid private student loans. The former give you a number of options to restructure your student loans if your financial circumstances are hard. The private student loans don't.

Second, the term "college" is actually wrong. What counts is postsecondary education, although it's a clunky term not widely used outside an expert community. When I say a college education pays off -- with as little debt as possible -- I include everything from a certificate earned at a community college to a community college associate's degree to a B.A. and so on.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." His e-mail is cfarrell@mpr.org.

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