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Education Nation

Commentary: Is College Worth It?

College Graduate for Hire

Butch Dill / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last week marked the college application deadline for many prospective members of Class of 2018. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates 18.9 million students will be enrolled in undergraduate degree programs this fall, an increase of nearly 28% over the past decade. The Center projects college enrollment to increase an additional 9% by 2021.

Although college enrollment is at an all-time high, some question the value of a college education. Is college worth it in 2014?

This week, I moderated a Google+ Hangout about the pros and cons of attending a four-year college, joined by a high school student, two college students, a graduate student, and a 19-year-old who decided not to enroll. We explored arguments on both sides of the debate. The group reached no conclusion, and I left the Hangout thinking there may not be an absolute answer to this question.

On one side of the argument, employment data suggest those with a college education may be better off in the job market. Bachelor’s degree holders can expect to earn 77% more over the course of their lifetime than those with just a high school diploma. That is a $1 million difference. Bachelor’s degree holders are also more likely to find a job: in 2012, college graduates were unemployed at a rate of 4.5%, while those with just a high school diploma were unemployed at a rate of 8.3%. For recent high school graduates without a college degree in 2012, the unemployment rate was near 24%, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Recent college graduates were unemployed at a rate of only 6.8%.

Employment data also supports the argument against college. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity found in a 2013 study that nearly half of working college graduates in 2010 held jobs requiring less than a four-year college degree: 37% held jobs requiring no more than a high school diploma and 11.1% held jobs requiring more than a high school education but less than a bachelor’s degree. The study found there are over 13 million more college graduates than available jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The high cost of tuition is also used to support the argument for not going to college. According to The College Board, the inflation-adjusted cost to attend a private four-year college has increased 14% over the past five years; the cost to attend a public four-year college has increased 27%. Total student loan debt has surpassed both auto and credit card debt. 60% of four-year college graduates leave school with an average of $26,500 in debt.

So, is college worth it? Some panelists in the Hangout said the value of college may depend on the individual.

The video above contains highlights from our conversation. You can watch the full Google+ Hangout here.