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Is College Debt Worth It?

Written by Ilyce Glink on August 27, 2012 in Family Money  |   4 comments

With student loan debt topping $1 trillion and the cost of college rising at four times the rate of inflation, many parents and high school seniors are asking themselves a fairly obvious question: Is college still worth it? According to data released by the U.S….

saving money collegeWith student loan debt topping $1 trillion and the cost of college rising at four times the rate of inflation, many parents and high school seniors are asking themselves a fairly obvious question: Is college still worth it?

According to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the answer is still yes.

“That’s not to say you want to go borrow $100K to be a teacher,” says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “But the right degree at the right price is not only the path toward higher earning, it’s also great insulation against unemployment.”

Employment and earning power

Even during the recession, with high unemployment and limited earning power, the numbers still bear out the simple truth we’ve always preached about college—a degree will help you get a job and earn more. For college graduates—that’s anybody with a four-year degree or more—the unemployment rate is only 4.1 percent, half of the 8.4 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates that have no college experience, according to the BLS.
“When you look at the difference in the unemployment rate, it really goes to show the investment of a college degree is still the best investment you can make,” McBride says.

College graduates will also earn more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma. In 2011, the last year these figures were available, the median annual earnings for someone with only a high school diploma was $33,000, but for college graduates it was almost $55,000.

But as the price of a college degree gets steeper, graduates who aren’t in fields with plump salaries will find it takes a lot longer to pay off that degree.

In a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study, researchers concluded that “high school students who can go on to college should do so—with one caveat. They should do their homework before picking a major because, when it comes to employment prospects and compensation, not all college degrees are created equal.”

McBride considers this basic common sense. Whether you’re buying a car, home, or college degree, make sure you can afford your investment and consider the potential return on that investment.
Research potential future salaries

Although industries and salaries change, you can research how much a potential job would earn on sites like Salary.com or Payscale.com. Compare that to the cost of universities your future college student is looking at attending. If you’re looking at taking out student loans, make sure to also factor in the interest rate.

“One rule of thumb that is used in calibrating cost of education with earning power is don’t borrow more than one year’s salary in your degree area or field of choice,” McBride says.

That can be a challenge, but it’s something to think about. Students taking out loans should consider how much they could reasonably put toward such loans each year and how long it will take them to pay the loans off if they earn that median salary. Do you really want to be paying for college when you turn 35 and work for meager wages as, for example, a social worker? No matter how fulfilling your career may be, that’s a hard number to crunch.

In the end, the cost-versus-earning-power calculation may not decide which college one may choose, but it’s a calculation that prepares young students for the life decisions they will encounter when they finally have that expensive degree.

Ilyce R. Glink is the author of several books, including 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and Buy, Close, Move In!. She blogs about money and real estate at ThinkGlink.com and at the Home Equity blog for CBS MoneyWatch.

4 comments

  1. Voice of Reason says:

    Two investigative questions:

    (1) How have states with lotteries that pay the student’s tuition controlled their rise in tuition rates v. states without lotteries?

    (2) If we enable future student loan debt to be cancelled out at bankruptcy (and not survive as currently written), wouldn’t that force the student loan market to make loans to those students who would have a better income after graduation instead of an elementary English teacher’s salary from Harvard?

  2. Jim says:

    NO if you get one it’s not supposed to be more than your 1st years salary for you degree or what you are majoring in. The interst rates are a killer.

  3. Russell Turner says:

    Some of the basic reasoning in the article is flawed. i.e. A car is surely not an investment even when used for a job. Having an education and having a degree is not the same. Many well educated persons do not have a degree. Nor is a degree necessarily a great insulation against unemployment.

    Why not set the goal at earning a degree (if you want or need one) without incurring a debt? I happen to have two bachelor degrees and two associate degrees but have never used one in seeking a job. My son has a bachelors degree and has just become a lawyer with a total debt of slightly over $4000. Do not take on debt to earn an education but work at tasks for the education you receive. If you can solve problems for others, adequate finances will follow if you apply common sense and a sound work ethic.

    It is relatively easy to draw poor conclusions from statistics. Decisions made from many “studies” are poor. Education is extremely important if it is directed by an intelligent person. I know many businessmen without degrees or ones who have received degrees very late in life who are among the most competent persons I know.

    An honest man with no debt is free but a man with debt is servant to the lender often an great cost,

  4. lifetime learner says:

    You and your son sound like self-made entrepreneurs who have been lucky enough to have the time, skills and earning power or even the tasks worthy of your labor, to beat the educational system—-most people are not in a position to do that. So I commend you for being that privileged.

    If your son just passed the bar without going to law school, and earned the money to do so through legitimate employment rather than through gifts above and beyond the standard rate for his labor, then I’d say he is (and you are) very lucky to be surrounded by very well healed, generous neighbors, friends and relatives who would trust a young person enough to allow him the opportunity to identify a problem that he could solve, hire him to solve it without any of the requisite credentials and pay him enough to finance an education on his own in this day and age, then he and you have something so rare that nobody else can emulate. Its a one-in-a-million story that sounds great, it would be nice to learn more about how you did it.


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