What's not as clear as it used to be is whether pursuing higher education will continue to guarantee a substantially more affluent and secure life. Higher degrees today don't always bring higher earnings.
And there's good reason to believe that a bachelor's alone may not be enough to command rising premiums over a lesser education or to open doors to the kinds of jobs that college graduates have been accustomed to.
Increasingly, the job market has become polarized, with the fastest-growing occupations on either the low end or the high end, often for positions that require more education than a bachelor's degree.
Middle-skilled occupations such as sales, office and administration -- positions perhaps most readily open to community college graduates -- have shown little or no growth over the last decade, and they fell sharply during the recession, according to research by David Autor, an economics professor at MIT.
Meanwhile, record numbers of people are enrolling in colleges. Those in two-year colleges made up 43% of the 16.4 million enrolled in degree-granting institutions in the fall of 2008, the latest year for which numbers are available. Even so, Autor's research shows that inflation-adjusted wages of workers with less than a four-year college degree fell steeply between 1979 and 2007, particularly for men.
During that same period, the real wages for college graduates rose 10% for men. But the biggest gains were made by male workers with more than a bachelor's degree; they saw a 26% jump in earnings.
I wonder if we're just seeing that the signaling effect of college grows less valuable when the percentage of the population that attends is so much higher.