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Tue February 11, 2014
Around the Nation

Going To College May Cost You, But So Will Skipping It

Originally published on Tue February 11, 2014 7:00 pm

In America, total student loan debt tops $1 trillion and a four-year college degree can cost as much as a house — leaving many families wondering if college is really worth the cost.

Yes, a new study of young people finds. The study, released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, looks at income and unemployment among young adults. Paul Taylor, executive vice president of special projects at Pew, says it's pretty much case closed when it comes to the benefits of going to college.

"In a modern, knowledge-based economy, the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college," he says.

Here are the numbers: Those with a college degree now make $17,500 more per year than those without — a wage gap that's doubled in recent decades. Those without a degree are four times more likely to be unemployed.

One can imagine a college-educated barista, struggling with loan payments, having second thoughts about her college debt. But Pew surveyed young people, and "you ask them was it worth it, and boy, even those with debt — 8 out of 10 — say absolutely," Taylor says. "Either it's already worth it or it will be worth it."

Dakota Goforth, 19, is a freshman at the University of the District of Columbia. At first, he did not plan on college. After all, neither of his parents went and they make a fine living — his dad in special education, his mom as an accountant. But Goforth says the staff at his high school worked hard to drive home the income disparity that the Pew report chronicles.

"They would show you statistics of people who didn't go to college and people who did. And once I saw the numbers I'm like, yeah I'm going," Goforth says. "In this generation you have to go to college. Like, it isn't even optional."

But Pew also finds that it's not just going to college that matters — it's what you study while you're there. UDC student Michael Benton, 29, says he already has a master's degree. But like nearly one-third of those whom Pew surveyed, he says he regrets his major.

His study of political science, international relations and international development, he says, has offered "very little" in the way of job opportunities. So Benton is now working on a second bachelor's degree, taking out loans and dipping into savings to major in computer science.

"I want to be in a field where it's growing and I know what the future looks like, and I think the future's bright," he says with a laugh.

Compared with those without a degree, grads today are much better off. But how about compared with their parents? About one-third of millennials have college degrees — the most-educated generation ever. But as a group, they're not doing better, incomewise, than their parents' generation.

"There's no great sense of forward progress among this group, vis-a-vis college-educated young adults 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago," Pew's Taylor says. Pew finds the wage gap is widening at the lower end of education. Prospects for those with just a high school diploma have been collapsing since the late 1970s.

"The blue collar jobs of yesteryear, which built the American middle class — those jobs have simply disappeared," says Arne Kalleberg, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and author of Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.

"The kinds of jobs that are being created are relatively low-wage, low-skill jobs, such as fast food and big-box stores," he says. "And so for most of Americans, we've seen a stagnation in wages and a decline in purchasing powers."

So there's more incentive now than ever to go to college. Still, Kalleberg cautions that college alone does not guarantee a well-paying job. What you major in does matter, he says. And, of course, you have to be able to pay for it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Student loan debt tops a trillion dollars, and when a four-year college degree can cost as much as a house, many young Americans and their parents are asking: Is college worth it? The Pew Research Center is out today with one answer. Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The study focuses on young adults and looks at some key measures like income and unemployment. Pew's Paul Taylor says it's pretty much case closed.

PAUL TAYLOR: In a modern knowledge-based based economy, the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college.

LUDDEN: Here are the numbers. Those with a college degree now make $17,500 more a year on average than those without, a wage gap that has doubled in recent decades. Unemployment? Those with no degree are four times more likely to be out of a job. Pew also surveyed young adults. Taylor says you can imagine a college-educated barista struggling with loan payments having second thoughts.

TAYLOR: But you ask them, was it worth it? And boy, even those with debt, eight out of 10 say absolutely, either it's already worth it or it will be worth it.

DAKOTA GOFORTH: In this generation, you have to go to college. Like, it isn't even an option.

LUDDEN: Nineteen-year-old Dakota Goforth(ph) is a freshman at the University of the District of Columbia. At first, he did not plan on college. After all, neither of his parents went and they make a fine living, his dad in special education, mom is an accountant. But Goforth says his high school was all over the disparity that the Pew report chronicles.

GOFORTH: And they would show you like statistics of people who didn't go to college the and people who did. And once I saw the numbers, I'm like, yeah, I'm going.

LUDDEN: But Pew also finds it's not just going that matters. It's what you study. On his way to morning class, 29-year-old Michael Benten(ph) says he already has a master's degree, but like nearly a third of those Pew surveyed, he regrets his major.

MICHAEL BENTEN: Political science and international relations and international development.

LUDDEN: So not a lot of job opportunity there?

BENTEN: No. Very little.

LUDDEN: So Benten is now at UDC for a second bachelor's. He's taking out loans and dipping into savings to major in computer science.

BENTEN: I want be in a field where it's growing and I know what the future looks like and I think the future's bright.

LUDDEN: Compared to those without a degree, grads today are much better off. But compared to their parents, well, a third of millennials have college degrees, the most educated generation ever. And yet Pew's Paul Taylor says...

TAYLOR: They're in effect holding their own. They're flat. I mean there's no great sense of forward progress among this group.

LUDDEN: Pew finds the wage gap is widening at the lower end. Prospects for those with just a high school diploma have been collapsing since the late '70s.

ARNIE KALLEBERG: The blue collar jobs of yesteryear, which built the American middle class, those jobs have simply disappeared.

LUDDEN: Arnie Kalleberg is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the author of "Good Jobs, Bad Jobs."

KALLEBERG: The kinds of jobs that are being created are relatively low wage, low skilled jobs such as fast food and big box stores, and so for most of Americans we've seen a stagnation in wages and a decline in purchasing powers.

LUDDEN: So there's more incentive than ever to go to college. Still, Kalleberg cautions, a degree alone does not guarantee a well-paying job, and of course you have to be able to pay for it. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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