Is College Still A Good Investment?

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Last week I attended the annual CIC (Council of Independent Colleges) Meeting.  I serve on the Board of Directors of this international organization.  CIC is an association of nonprofit independent colleges and universities that has worked since 1956  "to support college and university leadership; advance institutional excellence; and enhance public understanding of private higher education’s contributions to society.”  There are over 600 member institutions.

This annual meeting is for presidents only. And while the sessions and presentations are valuable, the real benefit is in the time spent speaking with my colleagues and learning about strategies and successes that may help our institution.  A central refrain during this meeting was the concern about the consistent questioning of the value of a college degree … especially at a private, independent college where tuition is relatively high.  There have been media stories and anecdotes galore regarding the challenges of the current recession and job market and the waste of time and money in attending college.

At the CIC Meeting, our focus was a discussion of the inherent value of education, and especially a liberal arts education, which is at the center of the educational experience at most independent colleges.  I agree with this and have written about liberal education many times.  But upon my return to the office, I was pleased to find a new report released by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  This report, entitled, “How Much Protection Does A College Degree Afford? The Impact of the Recession on Recent College Graduates,” focuses on the practical issues of finding a job and earning money.

Historically, study after study has demonstrated clearly that a college degree “not only increases the chances of upward mobility” (job opportunity, higher pay, career advancement), “but also reduces the chances of downward mobility” (unemployment, job loss, stagnant income).  However, in these challenging economic times, there is a perception that the “labor market is beginning to unravel for recent graduates.”  And these perceptions have led to a number of featured articles and stories (not research) about the high levels of debt, the limited job opportunity, and the lack of value of a college degree (in other words, why do you need a college degree if you are going to end up living in your parents’ basement!).

The Pew study focused on recent college graduates (aged 21 to 24). And the data is clear … a college degree is still the best investment for career opportunity and the best protection from a downturn in the economy.

The study provides a series of analyses drawn from the data collected in the Current Population Survey (CPS) from 2003-2011. The CPS is administered monthly and sponsored jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It is “the primary source of labor force statistics for the population of the United States.  The CPS is the source of numerous high-profile economic statistics, including the national unemployment rate, and provides data on a wide range of issues relating to employment and earnings.  The CPS also collects extensive demographic data that complement and enhance our understanding of labor market conditions in the nation overall, among many different population groups, in the states and in sub-state areas.”

The samples analyzed included graduates between the ages of 21 and 24 in the pre-recession period, the time of recession, and in the post-recession period (as defined by the Bureau of Labor).  The analyses compared those with a high school degree, a two-year degree, and a four-year degree.  Next week I will share a more detailed summary of the results.

But in the meantime, let’s get our children back to campus … it really is a good investment!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Saturday, 19 April 2014