College students are paying more. They are taking on more debt. They are accepting worse jobs after they graduate and earning less than they did just five years ago. So how could it possibly be true that college is more important than ever?
The answer is sunscreen.
College in today's economy is like sunscreen on a scorchingly hot afternoon: You have to see the people who didn’t apply it to fully appreciate how important it is. The same way a blistering sun both makes sunscreen feel ineffective and makes it more crucial than ever, recessions can both make a college degree seem ineffective and make it more important than ever.*
One of the confusing things about college is that it’s hard to keep straight its price, cost, and value. The sticker price of college—that is, the published tuition—isn’t paid by most middle-class students, who receive grants, tuition breaks, and tax benefits. The average net price of a bachelor's degree is still 55 percent lower than the sticker price today. For many students, tax benefits eliminate the full cost of an associate's degree. College is much cheaper than advertised.
Published vs. Net Tuition: Bachelor’s, Associate’s Degrees
But the true cost of higher education isn't just the money you pay to attend school. It's also the earnings you give up in the workforce. These lost earnings are quite apparent to, say, MBA applicants skipping $70,000 jobs to go to business school. But it's the same principle for anyone skipping the job force to learn stuff. Recessions lower the true cost of college because they make it easier to ignore the labor market for a few years and settle in for a degree. Even as the tuition cost of college has grown recently, the opportunity cost of college has fallen in the last few years because of the sick economy.