ERIC Identifier: ED470038
Publication Date: 2002-00-00
Author: Porter, Kathleen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Higher Education Washington DC.
The Value of a College Degree. ERIC Digest.
The escalating cost of higher education is causing many to question the value
of continuing education beyond high school. Many wonder whether the high cost of
tuition, the opportunity cost of choosing college over full-time employment, and
the accumulation of thousands of dollars of debt is, in the long run, worth the
investment. The risk is especially large for low-income families who have a
difficult time making ends meet without the additional burden of college tuition
In order to determine whether higher education is worth the investment, it is
useful to examine what is known about the value of higher education and the
rates of return on investment to both the individual and to society.
THE ECONOMIC VALUE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
considerable support for the notion that the rate of return on investment in
higher education is high enough to warrant the financial burden associated with
pursuing a college degree. Though the earnings differential between college and
high school graduates varies over time, college graduates, on average, earn more
than high school graduates. According to the Census Bureau, over an adult's
working life, high school graduates earn an average of $1.2 million; associate's
degree holders earn about $1.6 million; and bachelor's degree holders earn about
$2.1 million (Day and Newburger, 2002).
These sizeable differences in lifetime earnings put the costs of college
study in realistic perspective. Most students today-- about 80 percent of all
students--enroll either in public 4-year colleges or in public 2-year colleges.
According to the U.S. Department of Education report, Think College Early, a
full-time student at a public 4-year college pays an average of $8,655 for
in-state tuition, room and board (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2002). A full-time
student in a public 2-year college pays an average of $1,359 per year in tuition
(U.S. Dept. of Education, 2002).
These statistics support the contention that, though the cost of higher
education is significant, given the earnings disparity that exists between those
who earn a bachelor's degree and those who do not, the individual rate of return
on investment in higher education is sufficiently high to warrant the cost.
OTHER BENEFITS OF HIGHER EDUCATION
College graduates also
enjoy benefits beyond increased income. A 1998 report published by the Institute
for Higher Education Policy reviews the individual benefits that college
graduates enjoy, including higher levels of saving, increased
personal/professional mobility, improved quality of life for their offspring,
better consumer decision making, and more hobbies and leisure activities
(Institute for Higher Education Policy, 1998). According to a report published
by the Carnegie Foundation, non-monetary individual benefits of higher education
include the tendency for postsecondary students to become more open-minded, more
cultured, more rational, more consistent and less authoritarian; these benefits
are also passed along to succeeding generations (Rowley and Hurtado, 2002).
Additionally, college attendance has been shown to "decrease prejudice, enhance
knowledge of world affairs and enhance social status" while increasing economic
and job security for those who earn bachelor's degrees (Ibid.)
Research has also consistently shown a positive correlation between
completion of higher education and good health, not only for oneself, but also
for one's children. In fact, "parental schooling levels (after controlling for
differences in earnings) are positively correlated with the health status of
their children" and "increased schooling (and higher relative income) are
correlated with lower mortality rates for given age brackets" (Cohn and Geske,
THE SOCIAL VALUE OF HIGHER EDUCA5ION
A number of studies have shown a high correlation between higher education
and cultural and family values, and economic growth. According to Elchanan Cohn
and Terry Geske (1992), there is the tendency for more highly educated women to
spend more time with their children; these women tend to use this time to better
prepare their children for the future. Cohn and Geske (1992) report that
"college graduates appear to have a more optimistic view of their past and
future personal progress."
Public benefits of attending college include increased tax revenues, greater
workplace productivity, increased consumption, increased workforce flexibility,
and decreased reliance on government financial support (Institute for Higher
Education Policy, 1998).
COLLEGE ATTENDANCE VERSUS COLLEGE COMPLETION
report, College for All? Is There Too Much Emphasis on Getting a 4-Year College
Degree? Boesel and Fredland estimate that around 600,000 students leave 4-year
colleges annually without graduating. These noncompleters earn less than college
graduates because they get fewer years of education. More surprising, they tend
to earn less than or the same amount as 2-year college students who have as much
education. Furthermore, 2-year college students show about the same gains in
tested cognitive skills for each year of attendance as 4-year college students.
Students at 4-year colleges also pay more in tuition and are more likely to have
student loan debts than 2-year students (Boesel and Fredland, 1999, p. viii).
The authors conclude that high school graduates of modest ability or uncertain
motivation-factors that increase their chances of leaving college before
graduation-would be well-advised to consider attending 2-year, instead of
4-year, colleges. If they did, they would probably realize the same earnings and
cognitive skill gains at lower cost and with less debt. In order to maximize the
return on their time and monetary investment, students who do choose to enroll
in 4-year colleges should do everything in their power to graduate. (Boesel and
Fredland, 1999, p.ix).
While it is clear that investment in a college
degree, especially for those students in the lowest income brackets, is a
financial burden, the long-term benefits to individuals as well as to society at
large, appear to far outweigh the costs.
Boesel, D., & Fredland, E. (1999). College
for all? Is there too much emphasis on getting a 4-year college degree?
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, National Library of Education.
Cohn, E., & Geske, T.G. (1992). Private Nonmonetary Returns to Investment
in Higher Education. In Becker, W. & Lewis, D. The Economics of American
Higher Education. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Day, J.C., & Newburger, E.C. (2002). The Big Payoff: Educational
Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings. (Current Population
Reports, Special Studies, P23-210). Washington, DC: Commerce Dept., Economics
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The College Board. (2001). Trends in Student Aid 2001. New York: The College
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Higher Education Costs, Pricing, and Productivity. Washington, DC: Author.
Rowley, L.L., & Hurtado, S. (2002). The Non-Monetary Benefits of an
Undergraduate Education. University of Michigan: Center for the Study of Higher
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Schultz, T.W. (1961). Investment in Human Capital. American Economic Review,
U.S. Department of Education (2001). Digest of Education Statistics 2001.
U.S. Department of Education (2000). Think College Early: Average College
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Wolfe, B.L. (1994). External Benefits of Education. International
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