Higher Education

College Board Trends Report: Higher Education Still Pays

By Henry Kronk
January 15, 2020

Few higher education forecasts—for students or schools—have been sunny lately. On the one hand, tuition and fees have risen sharply in the past thirty years. Total student loan debt reached $1.5 trillion in the third quarter of 2019. Colleges and universities, meanwhile, are facing drops in enrollment that are expected to last through this decade, if not further. But a new report out from the College Board paints a different picture. For graduates, college still pays off financially, and is correlated with increased health benefits, civic engagement, and more.

Since 2004, College Board has prepared annual reports titled Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society. The latest iteration was published on January 14.

College Board: Investing in Higher Education Still Makes Sense

For those weighing whether or not to pursue a bachelor’s degree, the decision still represents more of a safe bet than a roll of the dice. On average, those who attained only a bachelor’s degree and were working full-time earned $24,900 more than high school graduates.

The unemployment rate for people over 25 and under 34 with a bachelor’s degree was less than half (2.2%) of that among high school graduates in the same age range (5.7%). On average, 18-year-olds who enter college and graduate in four years have, by 33, recouped the earnings they lost if they chose not to work for that period.

College degrees are also related to other benefits. 69% of college grads between 25 and 34 say they exercise ‘vigorously’ at least once a week, compared to 49% of high school graduates.

College graduates over 25 also volunteered at much higher rates than high school graduates—42% versus 19%. And finally, people with a bachelor’s or higher are more likely to vote—73% of those aged 25 to 44 versus 41% of high school graduates.

“Although obtaining a college degree can mean forgone wages during a time when a student is also paying tuition, by age 33 the average bachelor’s degree recipient will have recouped those costs,” said report co-author and Senior Policy Research Scientist at College Board, Jennifer Ma, in a statement. “A higher education is an investment that pays significant dividends over the course of a lifetime—even for students who accumulate some debt to obtain a degree.”

Despite These Benefits, Many Groups Still Struggle Disproportionately to Achieve Bachelor’s Degrees

But the picture is not all rosy. Certain groups of Americans achieve bachelor’s degrees at much lower rates than others.

Among students who have similar GPAs in high school, those from higher income families remain more likely to complete a degree.

The rate at which female high school grads enter college has exceeded that of males since 1989. But in the past ten years, the gap has widened. The gender gap increased to 7% between 2008 and 2018.

But the starkest differences lie in a student’s race. Black and hispanic women aged 25 to 29 earned bachelor’s degrees at a rate of 17% and 11% in 1998, respectively. In 2018, those rates rose to 25% and 22%. 34% of White women aged 25 to 29 had earned a bachelor’s in 1998. By 2018, nearly half—47%—had done so.

The rates are worse for men. 13% and 10% of Black and Hispanic males (respectively) aged 25 to 29 had earned bachelor’s degrees in 1998. Twenty years later, the figures stood at 20% and 17%. For White men, however, the figure grew from 31% to 39%.

While college remains a good investment and tends to correlate with a healthy lifestyle, there are still barriers for certain groups of Americans that put a bachelor’s degree further out of reach.

“Given the high payoffs of postsecondary education to both individuals and society as a whole, it is important that we increase college opportunity for all who can benefit and also improve completion rates,” said College Board Vice President of Research, Jessica Howell, in a statement. “Higher education is a powerful driver of social mobility for lower-income students, and it’s critical that these students have every opportunity to attend and thrive in college.”

Read the full report here.

Featured Image: Charles DeLoye, Unsplash.