Assessing the value of a college degree

What’s a college education worth? Two new studies take a look at that question, and come up with somewhat different answers.

One study, based on surveys done by the Pew Research Center this spring, concludes that a “typical” college graduate will earn $650,000 more than a “typical” high school graduate between the ages of 25 and 64. Subtract the potential earning college students forgo while in school–about $100,000–and the cost of college, and the net benefit is somewhere in the half-million-dollar range.

Still, only 40 percent of Americans believe colleges and universities deliver good value for the money spent to get a degree. (Not surprisingly, 76 percent of college presidents say higher education is worth the cost.)

The other survey, described by the Hechinger Report, puts a lower value on a college degree: While graduates of the most selective institutions can earn $550,000 more than those with a high school degree, it says, the premium for graduates of the least selective institutions is just $230,000.

But the real losers, according to the study by Nexus Research & Policy Center and the American Institutes for Research, are taxpayers, who subsidize private non-profit as well as public institutions. Those subsidies outstrip incremental tax gains from the higher incomes of college graduates, according to the study.

One caveat: Hechinger notes that Nexus is funded by foundations set up by the for-profit University of Phoenix, and the study was framed to highlight the benefits of for-profit education, which has come under fire lately. Despite some flaws, said Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems,  “It’s a reasonable study.”