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June 5 2017

Diminishing Financial Returns on the College Degree

by Charlotte Hays

A college degree has long been considered the key to upward mobility--but that may be changing. Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and Justin Strehle, who studies economics, chart the history of college enrollment in an article in the U.S. in the Wall Street Journal:

In the 375 years between 1636, when Harvard College was founded, and 2011, college enrollments in the United States rose almost continuously, rarely undergoing even a temporary decline. When the American Revolution began in 1775, only 721 students attended the nine colonial colleges. By 2010 enrollments had surpassed 20 million.

Yet from 2011 to 2016, the National Student Clearinghouse reports, total higher education enrollments declined every fall, falling to 19 million from 20.6 million. Although the declines were concentrated in community colleges and for-profit institutions, even many traditional four-year schools saw previously steady enrollment growth come to an end. Many smaller schools have even missed their annual enrollment goals.

Why is this happening? Some point to demographic influences, such as a drop in birth rates during the 1990s. Others cite increases in job opportunities, which lured college-age Americans away from the academy in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But two longer-term trends are at work: The cost of college attendance is rising while the financial benefits of a degree are falling.

Tuition and associated costs (books, room and board, for example) have skyrocketed, while financial benefits have not kept pace. We've also seen the phenomenon of "credential inflation:"  jobs that formerly didn't require a degree now can. Why not? More and more people have degrees, and it means less in the market.

Less well known is that the earnings advantage associated with a bachelor’s degree compared with a high school diploma is no longer growing like it once did. Census data show that the average annual earnings differential between high school and four-year college graduates rose sharply, to $32,900 in 2000 (expressed in 2015 dollars) from $19,776 in 1975—only to fall to $29,867 by 2015. In the late 20th century rising higher-education costs were offset by the increasing financial benefits associated with a bachelor’s degree. Since 2000 those benefits have declined, while costs have continued to rise.

A college education is not all about making money--there is also the idea of being an educated person. But with more meaningless majors (Women and Gender Studies?) this goal is less likely to be attained by obtaining a college degree.

The good news is that market forces are likely to swing into action: if colleges are drawing fewer students, they will have to re-examine tuition policies and also the kinds of education they are offering.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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