The Value of College Is: (a) Growing (b) Flat (c) Falling (d) All of the Above


The case for (and against) college in 10 charts

615 college graduate money.jpg


Millions of people applying to college this fall are grappling with how to write the first sentence of their essay and where to send the first application. Behind these worries, however, is a broader anxiety about not which college to attend, whether to attend at all. Is college worth it, any more?

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The case for college is established: The value of higher education has never been higher, period. A college degree -- not only from Harvard, but from community colleges -- turns out to be a better investment than stocks or homes. The fastest growing jobs in the next 10 years require an associate or bachelor's degree, and every piece of evidence suggests that more education correlates with more income and a lower chance of unemployment.

The case against college is gaining steam: Tuition costs are rising and graduates' incomes are flattening. Male bachelor's-degree holders saw a nearly 10 percent decline in real pay over the last 10 years, according to recent Census figures. The U.S. has the highest college-­dropout rate in the developed world, and studies have found that college confers "exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent" gains in academic skills.

Who's right? Well, all of these claims are true. The value of college has never been higher. But growth of the college premium has slowed, and the wages of college graduates have fallen in the last 10 years. Here is the case for and against college in 10 charts. Got more charts? Leave them in the comments section.


1. Seven of the ten fastest growing jobs in the next 10 years require a bachelor's degree or higher (source: BLS)

2. Each additional level of education correlates with lower unemployment rates and higher earnings (source: BLS)

3. Hourly weekly earnings rise in tandem with education (source: Hamilton Project)

4. For 30 years, employment among white-collar workers has grown much faster than middle-skill workers (source: Hamilton)

job growth across industries high low education.png
5. Employment for workers with Masters, professional, or associates degrees are expected to grow almost twice as fast as the overall job market in the next decade (source: BLS)

job growth decade education college.png

1. Education attainment climbed dramatically in the 20th century, but it's growth has flattened recently (source: Census)

2. College graduates' income advantage over those with only a high school degree has never been higher. But this advantage isn't growing at the rate it did in the 1980s. (source: Economic Policy Institute)

college premium1.png3. New college graduates are having a particularly hard time finding salaries that keep pace with wage growth at the top, suggesting that college works less like an investment than an insurance policy against poverty  (source: Economic Policy Institute)

college premium for young grads.png


1. Men got creamed in the 2000s, even those that went to college. In fact, percent decline in real earnings was worst for bachelor's-degree holders. (source: Michael Mandel)

2. As wages stagnate, cost are growing. Cumulative student loan debt has grown three times faster than other forms of household debt (source: Dan Indiviglio)

crazy student loans 2011-q2.png


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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