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

A new study shows that the income gap between young adults who go to college and those who don't only continues to grow.
A new study shows that the income gap between young adults who go to college and those who don't only continues to grow.

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 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.