College Degrees are Still Worth the Investment

With unemployment hovering at 9 percent and college costs outpacing inflation, there is growing doubt about whether a college degree is worth the investment. Yet studies show that over the long term, college graduates fare better than high school graduates in many facets of life, ranging from career satisfaction to parenting skills.

The most commonly cited advantage of attending college is its impact on income. For 2008, the median salary of bachelor’s degree recipients working full-time year-round was $55,700, compared with $33,800 for a high school graduate, according to Education Pays 2010, a new report released by the College Board, the nonprofit association that administers the SAT.

Over the course of a 30-year career, college graduates earn about $400,000 more than high school graduates, according to a study conducted by PayScale for Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet beyond earnings, college graduates also have higher job satisfaction. The College Board report shows that about 58 percent of college graduates and individuals with some college education were very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 50 percent of high school graduates.

“People have to keep in mind that a college degree should be looked at as an investment rather than an expense,” says John Rooney, co-author of Preparing for College: Practical Advice for Students and Their Families (Ferguson Publishing, 2010). “An automobile is an expense. It depreciates over time. A college degree is an investment. It pays off over time.”

In the labor market, college graduates have higher success in finding jobs and staying employed than high school graduates. In January 2011, the unemployment rate for individuals with a bachelor’s degree was 4.2 percent, while for high school graduates it was 9.4 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report.

“The market is really getting tough,” says Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “Attorneys are competing with people with bachelor’s degrees. The pool is a lot deeper. There are a lot of people who haven’t found jobs so they are applying for positions.”

In his State of the Union Address delivered on Jan. 25, President Obama said, “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.”

While many can find jobs without attending college, they will not be able to advance as easily in their careers without at least a bachelor’s degree, says Jim Charkins, an economics professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

“There’s a ceiling in many jobs you can’t go beyond without a four-year degree,” says Charkins, executive director of the California Council on Economic Education. “A lot of kids think, ‘I’m just going to go work for the Forest Service.’ Then they get there and they say, ‘I want to make a lot more money in the forest service.’ But in order to do that, you need a college degree.”

Besides income and employment, there are other benefits of college that can improve your quality of life. College graduates, for example, are much more likely to exercise on a regular basis, according to the College Board report. Among four-year college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34, 63 percent exercised vigorously before being surveyed in 2008, compared with 37 percent of high school graduates.

College graduates are also less likely to be obese, the College Board report shows. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, 20 percent of four-year college graduates were obese, compared to 34 percent of high school graduates. In addition college graduates are less likely to smoke. In 2008, 9 percent of four-year college graduates smoked, compared with 27 percent for high school graduates.

There are multiple benefits for children if their parents are college graduates. Parents who have earned a bachelor’s degree are more likely to read to their children; among college graduates , 68 percent read to their children daily in 2007, compared to 41 percent of high school graduates. In addition, college graduates participate more frequently with their school-age children in a range of activities, from visiting a library to attending a concert.

College graduates are also more involved in their communities and are more likely to vote in elections and volunteer for organizations, according to the College Board report.

“Their lives are just so much better, not just in terms of income, but in terms of the style of life that they have,” says Rooney, a professor emeritus of psychology and director of the master’s program in clinical counseling at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “You just learn to appreciate a lot of things in life, like reading and enjoying the various types of entertainment, such as theater, music and art.”

“But it’s a little more than that. I think it’s the sense that you understand better what’s going on in the world — your relationship with politics and community. You’re freed from a narrowness that many of us might grow up with in terms of neighborhood and family. We build on that and go beyond it.”

That is what happened to Neil Gussman, a Philadelphia communications professional who initially decided to work on a Teamster loading dock outside Boston after graduating from high school. During his apprenticeship, Gussman realized that many of his coworkers on the loading dock were in their 50s and 60s and were earning the same salary he was.

After serving in the army for seven years, Gussman finally utilized his military education benefits to enroll in college and eventually earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. Today, he works as a strategic communications and media relations manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a library and museum in Philadelphia.

“Just becoming an expert in something gives you a different way to look at the world,” Gussman says. “If you have a degree in anything, people will know you’re adaptable and you can learn things. You have so much better a chance of getting a job. And in this economy, having options is a really good thing.”

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