Two studies offer emphatic answers to much-discussed questions about higher education: Yes, a college degree is worth it, and yes, it is the middle class that’s getting squeezed by student debt.
The first study, from the Lumina Foundation and Georgetown University, seems to demolish the idea the Great Recession diminished the value of a degree. Yes, recent college grads have struggled to find jobs. But overall, even as unemployment was rising past 10 percent, the authors found the economy added 200,000 jobs for workers with a bachelor’s degree. Since the recovery began, it has created 2 million more.
Just as there was not really a recession, at least in terms of job creation, for those with degrees, there has not been a recovery for those without them. Nearly 6 million high-school-only jobs have been lost since the downturn began, and the y are still declining.
‘‘This is the clearest information that we have seen to date about the advantage of having college-level skills in the employment market,’’ said Lumina’s president, Jamie Merisotis. ‘‘The gap between those with a college credential and those without one is growing.’’
The unemployment rate for all four-year graduates is 4.5 percent. For recent graduates, it’s 6.8 percent. For recent graduates trying to work with only a high school diploma, it is nearly 24 percent.
‘This is the clearest information that we have seen . . . the gap between those with a college credential and those without one is growing.’
In construction and manufacturing, which accounted for two-thirds of all Great Recession job losses, virtually all of the hiring during the recovery has targeted people with at least associate’s degrees.
Overall, the growth rate for high-school-only jobs is zero, and those jobs remain 10 percent below prerecession levels.
Still, there is another variable: The cost of college has been rising rapidly. Yet on average, a degree is worth $1.3 million in additional lifetime earnings. But, as Georgetown’s Anthony Carnevale says, there is no such thing as a generic bachelor’s degree.
As many as one in five undergraduate degrees produce average earnings no greater than those of a high school graduate. Many types of associate’s degrees produce better average earnings than some bachelor’s.
The second study highlights the burden of growing student debt on middle-class families, who may be too well off to qualify for financial aid. University of Wisconsin demographer Jason Houle finds students from middle-income families rack up more student loan debt, on average, than others.
About 40 percent left school with debt; the average was $22,000.
Students from families earning between $40,000 and $59,000 were saddled with $6,000 more, on average, than peers from families earning less than $40,000.
One reason is that federal grant aid targets the lowest-income students.