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August 08, 2011 11:00 AM Payoff Problems

By Daniel Luzer

Higher education pays off in the end. That’s the latest news from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. This is actually a rather common theme from the center but this one is a little different, demonstrating that:

Occupational choice can trump degree level. People with less education in high-paying occupations can out-earn people with more education in less remunerative occupations.
But while occupation can sometimes trump education, degree level still matters most within individual occupations.

This is apparently true even despite the rapidly increasing cost of college. As one contributor on the Education Writers Association blog put it:

With tuition growing faster than Americans’ income, some have questioned whether college is still worth the cost, especially if it means taking on mountains of debt. The new report… is an unabashed attempt to swat down such arguments.
[One funder of] the new report [explained that it] “explodes the myth” that a college education is less valuable than it used to be. Especially in light of the collapse of home values, the ticket to the American dream of income security lies in education, he argued. “Today the real coin of the realm isn’t home ownership….” Instead, it’s the personal and professional mobility that comes from earning a postsecondary degree or credential.

Okay, we get it. Going to college isn’t a waste of money.

The problem is that it is, technically, worth less than it used to be, if one factors in personal debt. College cost escalate at about double the rate of inflation and middle class wages are essentially stagnant. There’s no real way to manipulate that so that college looks like a different, and rather less stable, investment than it used to be. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t go; it’s just that the calculation is ridiculous.

So great, college is a better investment than a mortgage, but the fact that the cost is too high isn’t in any way undermined by the way it results in a higher return later on.

Does long-run payoff mean cost is appropriate? If, for instance, we started to charge everyone for secondary and primary education, the education would be “worth it” too, but it would be a cruel calculation to force upon the world. It would in no way mean the cost wasn’t too expensive.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer