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Is a College Degree Worth the Cost

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Executive Summary As the global economy increasingly demands a knowledge-based workforce, the value of a college degree is growing exponentially. The so-called wage premium of a college degree now is higher than ever before: A typical bachelor’s-degree recipient earns 80 percent more than a high school graduate during a 40-year career, more than $500,000 over a lifetime. That wage premium has resulted in an enrollment surge in the past decade for American colleges and universities. The number of students on campuses has grown by more than one-third since the early 2000s, and institutions have responded with a bevy of new academic programs to serve this market hungry for new skills. The number of college majors tracked by the U.S. Department of Education has increased by some 20 percent just since 2000. Student demand also has allowed colleges to continue increasing their tuition prices. When the recession of 2008 hit, average tuition in the U.S. consumed some 40 percent of median earnings in the United States, up from less than a quarter of income eight years earlier. But as student debt surpassed more than $1 trillion in 2011, students and their parents started to question what they were getting in return for the high cost of a college degree. While the value of higher education remains undisputed, prospective students and their parents—armed with new tools that track the career and earnings outcomes of graduates—are beginning to cast doubt on the return on investment of certain majors and particular colleges.

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