Overall, people with a college education do better in the labor market than people with no education beyond high school. Higher levels of education correspond, on average, to higher levels of employment and higher wages. Yet, as college prices rise and as examples of graduates struggling to find remunerative employment despite their credentials become more visible, both potential students and the general public are questioning the value of a college education.
The data, however, remain clear: even at current prices, postsecondary education pays off for most people. Promising occupational and personal opportunities are disproportionately available to college graduates. It is increasingly difficult to maintain a middle class lifestyle without a postsecondary credential, and the economic, social, and civic benefits of a more educated population are well documented.
Outcomes do vary considerably, however, both among people with similar levels of education and across types of credentials. Growing income inequality does not just involve a growing gap between the earnings of the most educated and the least educated people; there is also increasing variation within educational categories. Greater understanding of these patterns and of the changes over time in the earnings premium for different levels of education can add perspective to discussions of the importance of increased educational attainment for both individuals and society as a whole.
This brief highlights some of the complexities underlying discussions of the return to the investment in postsecondary education and describes some of the variation in outcomes that leads to the prevalent uncertainty about the value of the investment, clarifying that disappointing outcomes for some are not inconsistent with a high average payoff and significant benefits for most students