"In most respects, a college degree has never been more valuable. As highlighted in a recent Hamilton Project piece, recent college graduates earn more money and have an easier time finding employment than their peers who only have a high school diploma. What may be less intuitive is that these gaps have been growing in recent years. ..., a young college graduate earned about $4,000 more per year in the 1980s, adjusting for inflation, than someone of the same age who did not attend college (averaged across the entire population, not just those in the workforce). Over the last three decades, that figure has climbed to $12,000 per year.
Differences in employment rates between college graduates and non-graduates have not demonstrated as clear of a trend over this period, with one key exception. In recent years—particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession—college has become an increasingly important determinant of one’s employment status. Today, a college graduate is almost 20 percentage points more likely to be employed than someone with only a high school diploma. This “employment gap” between college and high school graduates is the largest in our nation’s history."
"While the evidence is clear about the lifelong value of more education, skeptics are increasingly pointing to rising tuition costs to claim that college is not as sound of an investment as it once was. And it is true that tuition has increased significantly over the past few decades. In 1980, it cost an average of about $56,000 (adjusting for inflation) to attend a university for four years. This figure includes tuition, fees, and the “opportunity cost,” or income one foregoes to attend school instead of holding a job. (This figure excludes room and board: one must eat and sleep whether she is in college or not.) In 2010, four years of college cost more than $82,000, a nearly 50 percent increase over that 30-year period.
This increase in tuition is based on calculations from the National Center for Education Statistics but it may overstate the rise in the costs of college. First, this rise in tuition does not account for recent increases in financial aid. Thus, while the sticker price of college may have gone up, it is unclear to what extent the cost to students and their families has increased. Indeed, according to the College Board, the actual cost of a four-year degree has remained relatively constant over the last 15 years.
Regardless of the magnitude of the exact increase in tuition, a sole focus on the cost of college is misleading because it only tells half of the story. Specifically, the monetary benefits of a college degree have increased dramatically over the last few decades. An individual who entered college in 1980 could expect to earn about $260,000 more over the course of her life compared to someone who received only a high school diploma. In contrast, for someone starting college in 2010, the expected lifetime increase in earnings relative to a high school graduate was more than $450,000. These estimates are adjusted both for inflation and the fact that most of this additional income will come much later in a graduate’s life, and the calculations are described in more detail here.
Even if we assume that all students actually pay tuition at the published rates, the bottom line is this: while college may be 50 percent more expensive now than it was 30 years ago, the increase to lifetime earnings that a college degree brings is 75 percent higher. In short, the cost of college is growing, but the benefits of college—and, by extension, the cost of not going to college—are growing even faster."