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As Economy Shifts, College Becomes Key to Middle-Class Life

College is expensive, but not going to college can be even costlier, according to a new survey.

In 1967, more than 70 percent of the workforce had only a high school education, and generated more than 60 percent of the nation’s earnings, a new report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University says. By 2012, around 30 percent of workers had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and contributed more than half the earnings in the economy.

The study underscores just how much higher education will continue to be a sharp line dividing America between haves and have-nots.

Center director and Georgetown professor Anthony Carnevale said the findings assuage fears that the nation’s loss of manufacturing jobs would lead to an inexorable weakening of the economy.

“In a lot of ways, we got what we wanted,” Carnevale said.

The report redefines the idea of a service-sector economy to include not just the much-maligned “McJobs” that make the most headlines, but a host of behind-the-scenes occupations in everything from marketing to healthcare to finance that open the door to a solid middle-class life.

“The recipe for final goods and services in every sector is now loaded with college jobs,” Carnevale said.

But although it’s good to know that a service economy can deliver a middle-class income, the big caveat is that access to these jobs depends, to an ever-increasing extent, on having a college degree. The Georgetown report finds that the wage premium for workers with a college education grew from 36 percent in 1979 to 82 percent for men and 75 percent for women by 2007.

Is College Worth the Cost? 2:12

IN-DEPTH

-- Martha C. White