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Until the last few years, the argument over the value of a college education was as one-sided as an Alabama-Notre Dame football game.

Getting a college degree was the surest way to a successful, prosperous and fulfilling adult life. It didn’t depend on your demographic. A college diploma was going to improve your future. Not by a little, but by a lot.

Those were accepted facts for decades and nobody challenged them.

At least not until the Great Recession of 2008 rearranged public perception on a lot of things, including the value of a college education. The unstable economy and rapidly escalating costs for college created a real problem for parents, who previously wouldn’t have thought twice about sending their children to college. Now they have to ask themselves the very serious question: Is college really worth it?

In 2008, 81 percent of Americans thought a college degree was worth it. That number nosedived to 57 percent in 2012. Among the factors leading to that drastic drop are:

  • Tuition costs that have risen 42 percent in the past 10 years, while room and board is up 65 percent.
  • 70 percent of college freshmen take more than four years to get a degree. Partying is considered as much a part of the process as education.
  • Two-thirds of college graduates owe an average of $27,000 in student loans when they leave school.
  • 40 percent of college graduates are working jobs that don’t require college degrees.

And along comes the book “Is College Worth It?” by the former Secretary of Education, William Bennett, who stirs the debate even more. Bennett and his co-author, David Wilezol, argue that sending a child to college has become a reflex action for American parents, rather than a well-thought out decision.

The two authors paint a picture of parents who send their children off to the most prestigious school the child can get into, regardless of costs. When the child finishes, they carry the burden of heavy student loan debt, can’t find a job, and even if they do, their employers say they are ill-prepared to join the workforce.

So is it really a good idea NOT to send your child to college?

“Not even close,” Georgetown University professor Stephen Rose said. “The return on a secondary education absolutely dwarfs the costs.”

Rose published a study called “The College Payoff” in 2011 that compared lifetime earnings for people with a college diploma versus those with a high school diploma. On average, the person with a bachelor’s degree will earn $1 million more in their lifetime. Someone with a master’s degree can expect to earn $1.4 million more than high school graduates and a doctorate degree will bring in $1.6 million more.

“And it’s not just the money, it’s the opportunities,” Rose said. “You have a lot more leeway with a college degree. There will be more opportunities for high-paying jobs than if you only have a high school diploma.”

Rose did his study for the Georgetown Center on Education in the Workforce. The Department of Labor took the question a step further.

According to their 2013 April statistics, high school graduates 25 years and older had an unemployment rate of 11.9 percent compared to 3.9 percent for those with bachelor’s degrees. The average annual salary for high school graduates in that category was $33,852 while the college graduates were earning $61,828.

“The question is not whether going to college is worth it,” Rose said, “the question is whether the major you chose at college is worth it. There is some disparity in job opportunities, depending on your major.”

Architecture majors, for example, face an unemployment rate of 12.8 percent. Lawyers are at 9.2 percent, while education majors are at 5 percent. Health science majors are at 4.8 percent.

The book by Bennett and Wilezol contained numerous stories of college graduates who took on student loans ranging from $50,000 to nearly $400,000 to complete their degrees. Rose acknowledged that while there are stories of absurd borrowing, like the ones cited in the book by Bennett and Wilezol, they are far from being the norm.

“The front-page stories you see about students being $100,000 in debt are rare, really rare,” Rose said. “The median debt for college graduates is $10,000. That means that half the people who took out student loans, are leaving college less than $10,000 in debt. To me, that is reasonable and appropriate for a college degree.”

Still, as Rose, Bennett and Wilezol demonstrate, there are good arguments on both sides of this subject. The fact there is a continuing national debate should be useful in helping the families and individuals making the choice for college.

The value of education far exceeds the costs of it. Learning, whether it’s in a classroom or through national debate, is always worth it.

Bill Fay is a writer for Debt.org, focused mainly on news stories about the spending habits of families and government. He spent 21 years in the newspaper business and eight more in television and radio, dealing with college and professional sports, then seven forgettable years writing speeches and marketing materials for a government agency.

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