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Is a College Degree Worth It?

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Is a college degree worth it? A recent study from the Pew Research Center suggests the value of a college degree has never been higher – no matter what your age.

The study shows the gap between people with a bachelor's degree and their peers whose formal education stopped in high school is growing dramatically in key economic measures, such as unemployment and poverty rates.

The Pew Research Center study focuses on so-called "Millennials" (the study looks at adults between the ages of 25 and 32), but the numbers show the value of a college degree among all age groups. The research answers the question, "Is a college degree worth it?" with a resounding yes.

Specifically, the study shows:

  • In 1965, a high school graduate between the ages of 25 and 32 could expect to earn $31,384 (in 2012 dollars).
  • Today, a high school graduate between the ages of 25 and 32 can expect to make $28,000 annually (in 2012 dollars).

While the income of high school graduates is dropping, it is going the opposite direction for college graduates:

  • In 1965, a college graduate between the ages of 25 and 32 could have expected to make $38,833 (in 2012 dollars).
  • Today's Millennials ages 25-32 with a college degree on average earn $45,500 annually (in 2012 dollars).

Looked at another way, those numbers shows how much the disparity in income has grown over time:

  • A 1965 high school graduate could expect to make about $7,500 less than their peers with a college degree. Today, that number has jumped to a gap of $17,500.
  • In other words, today's high school graduates can expect to make just 62 percent of what their college-educated peers make annually.

The gap in unemployment rates is also striking: 3.8 percent of those aged 25-32 with a college degree are unemployed, while 12.2 percent with only a high school diploma reported unemployment. The reality of those economic indicators hits home when analyzing the data about the number of Millennials living in poverty, which showed that 6 percent of college-educated Millennials ages 25-32 live in poverty, while 22 percent of those whose formal education ended at high school live below the poverty line.

Given all of these findings, perhaps the real question is: Can you really afford not to pursue a degree? The college-educated respondents in the Pew Research Center study answered that question, as well: 88 percent of those surveyed said they believed their college education had "paid off," or expected it to in the future.

The Pew Research Center analyzed economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau and surveyed 2,002 adults to create its report, issued in February 2014.

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