Is College Still Worth It? Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Posted by Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis on April 16, 2018

As college tuition rises, student debt levels soar, and stories circulate about college-educated baristas, Americans are wondering: Is college really worth it? Is it worth the cost, burdensome loans, and time out of the workforce or away from family? And doesn’t it seem like previous generations both paid less and generated much larger returns? At the same time, kids and adults rightly believe that college—or at least some postsecondary education—is more essential to economic success than ever. What explains this conundrum?

Recent research from the St. Louis Fed’s Center for Household Financial Stability shows that the economic return on college is, in fact, large, though unequal across the population and diminishing across successive generations of college graduates. Moreover, the college economic return increasingly appears to be influenced by one’s parents, especially by their level of education, as well as by one’s race or ethnicity. If factors out of one’s control influence the college return, what will it take to make college worth it for current and future generations?

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