Smarten Up: Is College Really Worth It?

Smarten Up (pic)As the father of one girl who is a freshman at a private college in Pennsylvania, I have had the pleasure this year of beginning to pay enormous college bills.  With a second girl about to enter next year, the costs appear to be astronomical.  I’m hoping to get some financial aid with two kids in college at the same time, but my friends laugh and tell me don’t count on it.

Which got me to wondering—is college really worth it?  We all know about Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg, who left Harvard early to start Facebook, and Steve Jobs, who started Apple after only attending Reed College for six months. These guys aren’t just worth billions; they’re modern-day tycoons who revolutionized our world.  And they did it without a college degree.  Think of all the money their parents saved!

But, for every internet whiz-kid college dropout, the reality is that there are tens of millions of high school graduates who start but never finish college, or who do not continue their studies altogether.  And for them, a recent report shows, their earnings over a 40-year work history are substantially less than those who attend and finish college.  According to a report released last month by the College Board, while the income gap has narrowed somewhat between college and high school grads over the last several years, college grads on the whole can expect to earn 2/3 more over their working lifetime than their counterparts who enter the workforce directly from high school. 

How long does it take to “break even?”  For those who attend public colleges, like the University of Maine, after 13 years they will be even with their classmates who did not bother to continue with school.  For students who attend private universities, it takes about 3 years longer to break even due to their higher costs. 

Of course, while getting a college degree generally equates to higher earnings, what a student studies does matter.  Not all degrees are created equal.  A 2011 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce based on 2010 census data demonstrates that there are vast disparities in earning potential between college majors.  Not surprisingly, some degrees, such as in engineering, pay far better than others, such as in psychology and social work.  And, not surprisingly, doctors and dentists tend to be the highest paid professions in Maine.  To see how Maine stacks up, take a look at this chart

Of course, money isn’t everything.  But having a good steady job in today’s economy is a blessing.  Not only do college grads make more money over their lifetime, but during the recent prolonged recession, the unemployment rate for high school grads was almost twice as much as those with a college degree.  

So, is it worth all the money I am and will be spending to send my daughters to college?  Statistically speaking, the answer is a resounding yes.  Now if only we paid women equally to men, and not $.77 on the dollar, maybe they would be able to support me in my dotage.  Until then, like so many others, I guess I won’t be retiring anytime soon.   

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