Paying for College

Is College Still a Good Investment?

Rising college costs and heavy debt have raised doubts about the payoff from a college degree.

Douglas Webber is an associate professor in the economics department at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he focuses on labor and the economics of higher education.

A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggested that the value of a college education has declined. Is college still worth the cost? For the average person, college is still overwhelmingly a good decision. But like any investment, there are risks. The potential negative consequences are greater now than they were for previous generations. Not only are you taking time out from the labor market, but you're paying more to attend college. Plus, many students are taking out debt that's nearly impossible to discharge in bankruptcy. But the biggest risk is not graduating, because you still have the debt but don't have a degree.

Do workers who graduate with a bachelor's degree still out-earn workers without a college degree? Yes, but the price of attending college has gone up, so the net return of a college degree has gone down a little bit. Still, over a lifetime, college graduates earn about $900,000 more relative to high school graduates. Even if you discount that figure to take into account the types of students who go to college, the "opportunity cost" of not being in the labor force and other factors, the net value of a college degree is still about $350,000 over your lifetime compared with a high school degree.

How does the major a student selects affect the outcome? The choice of a major may be the single biggest financial decision people will ever make. If you list majors from top to bottom based on earnings, it's roughly a $2 million differential. But lifetime earnings shouldn't be in the top three things that you base your decision on, in part because job satisfaction matters. There's an economic reason, too. If you compare average earnings for an English major to, say, an accounting major's earnings, accounting looks a lot better. But frankly, if that person is not very good at accounting, they'll earn less than the average accounting major. In that case, you may maximize your earnings potential by choosing English.

How does student borrowing factor into the equation? Debt is a huge factor. If you take out a lot of debt for a low-earning major, the chances that it's going to pay off are less than 50-50. If you're an engineering major with a generous financial aid package, the chances it will pay off are virtually 100%.

And there are huge differences between federal student loans and private student loans. The protections that exist within the federal Stafford loan program are very strong and limit the consequences if you're unable to repay your debt. Private student loans don't have those protections. If you're attending a lower-cost school, you might be able to get most or all the way through college with only federal loans.

What should students and families consider when choosing a school? Finding a school that's right for you is a very personal decision. But it's important to look up a school's graduation rate, average earnings of graduates and other statistics on CollegeScorecard.gov to see if the school does a good job of getting students through to graduation and helping them find good jobs.

Students generally have a good sense of the value of different majors. They know that economics, engineering and finance are the high-earning majors and that music, humanities and the liberal arts are low-earning majors. But they have a really poor sense of the magnitude of the difference. Students should make a list of the majors they're considering and then look at the projected earnings for each. Understanding that won't change a lot of decisions, but they should be aware of the labor market they'll be going into.

Most Popular

The Perfect Storm for Retirees
retirement planning

The Perfect Storm for Retirees

Today’s retirees could face a perfect storm because they are living longer and spending more time in retirement, while at the same time losing access …
April 18, 2021
The Wrong Way to Achieve Wealth
personal finance

The Wrong Way to Achieve Wealth

For some down-to-earth, basic advice on money and life, I have a book to recommend: “Your Total Wealth: The Heart and Soul of Financial Literacy.”
April 17, 2021
Child Tax Credit 2021: Who Gets $3,600? Will I Get Monthly Payments? And Other FAQs
Coronavirus and Your Money

Child Tax Credit 2021: Who Gets $3,600? Will I Get Monthly Payments? And Other FAQs

People have lots of questions about the new $3,000 or $3,600 child tax credit and the advance payments that the IRS will send to most families in 2021…
April 14, 2021

Recommended

What You Need to Know about College 529 Savings Plans
529 Plans

What You Need to Know about College 529 Savings Plans

Do you know how much you’re able to contribute or what the funds could be used to pay for? How about how contributing affects your taxes? Check out th…
April 14, 2021
How to Pay Off $130,000 in Parent PLUS Loans for Just $33,000
Paying for College

How to Pay Off $130,000 in Parent PLUS Loans for Just $33,000

Meet Nate. He took out $130,000 in Parent PLUS loans for his kids. The standard repayment plan will cost him over $170,000. But some smart strategizin…
April 12, 2021
Brandon Copeland: Should Student Athletes Be Paid to Play?
Brandon Copeland

Brandon Copeland: Should Student Athletes Be Paid to Play?

During the height of March Madness, Kiplinger.com contributing editor and NFL linebacker Brandon Copeland and Casey Schwab, founder and CEO of Altius…
March 29, 2021
6 Biden Stimulus Benefits That Pack the Biggest Punch
Coronavirus and Your Money

6 Biden Stimulus Benefits That Pack the Biggest Punch

From stimulus checks to enhanced unemployment benefits, these perks from the American Rescue Plan will provide significant financial relief to million…
March 26, 2021