College Costs

October 25, 2019 • Volume 29, Issue 38
Does a four-year degree still deliver value?
By Lorna Collier


A record 35 percent of Americans had attended at least four years of college in 2018 — up from 4.6 percent in 1940. But with tuition rising as much as four times faster than inflation, many graduates are facing high amounts of college debt — almost $30,000 on average — and more than 40 percent are underemployed in their first jobs. These trends raise questions about whether a college degree today is worth the time and money. Studies continue to show a four-year degree boosts lifetime earnings over those of high school graduates, but new research shows that not all graduates will see a strong return on investment, depending on gender, race, family income and type of degree. Employers, meanwhile, complain they cannot find skilled workers to fill good-paying jobs that do not require a college degree. Some experts recommend expanding low-cost alternative training programs, such as vocational education and skills-based “boot camps.” Consumer advocates raise concerns that some for-profit training programs require oversight to prevent inadequate learning or fraud, yet the Trump administration has been deregulating the industry.

A student at Pasadena City College in Pasadena (AFP/Getty Images/Robyn Beck)
A student at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, Calif., wears a lei made of dollar bills to her commencement in June. While college graduates will earn more on average than people with only a high school degree, tuition costs have been rising faster than inflation, raising questions about the worth of a college degree. (AFP/Getty Images/Robyn Beck)
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
College Financing
Oct. 25, 2019  College Costs
Nov. 18, 2016  Student Debt
Oct. 21, 2011  Student Debt
Jan. 25, 2008  Student Aid
Dec. 05, 2003  Rising College Costs
Nov. 20, 1992  Paying for College
May 19, 1989  What's Behind High College Price Tags
May 23, 1986  Student Aid
Aug. 14, 1981  Tuition Tax Credits
Feb. 24, 1971  College Financing
Nov. 27, 1968  Financing of Private Colleges
Mar. 25, 1959  Costs of Education
May 04, 1955  Higher Education For The Millions
College Financing and Funding
Consumer Behavior
Consumer Protection and Product Liability
Cost of Education and School Funding
Education Policy
General Employment and Labor
Online Education
Party Politics
Party Politics
Regulation and Deregulation
Student Movements
Undergraduate and Graduate Education
Veterans' Services
Vocational and Adult Education
Work and the Family
World War II