Is a bachelor’s degree worth it?

If you’re a working adult who either never went to college or went to college for a while without finishing, you are not alone—only 40% of American adults have an associate’s degree or higher, so that actually puts you in the majority.

However, in a Gallup poll from 2015, fully 96% of adults surveyed believe it’s somewhat or very important to have a degree or certificate past high school. So what gives? If they believe it’s important, why aren’t they pursuing it?

Forbes contributor Andrew Kelly wrote a two-part article (here is Part 1, and here is Part 2) discussing the findings from a survey he commissioned of a group he calls the “neglected majority”—adults who are out of the education stream, and his biggest takeaway is that these adults don’t see the benefits of higher education outweighing the costs—but part of that perception comes from the fact that the adults surveyed also didn’t have an accurate idea of what college actually does cost, so they didn’t have a good starting point for their cost-benefit analysis.

The recently released College Board report, Education Pays 2016: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society outlines some of the many benefits of higher education, and as I outlined elsewhere, often those benefits are to society as a whole rather than to individuals. But a very real—and not insignificant—benefit to the individual is higher earning potential and greater financial stability.

The College Board report also answers the question of whether the cost is worth the benefit, at least for traditional college-age students: “The median four-year college graduate who enrolls at age 18 and graduates in four years can expect to earn enough relative to the median high school graduate by age 34 to compensate for being out of the labor force for four years and for paying the full tuition and fees and books and supplies without any grant aid” (p. 18). Of course, it’s always a good idea to apply for any grants or scholarships that might be available, which will increase that return.

There are other numbers, though, that suggest that landing on hard times could be a bit softer if you have a bachelor’s degree. The unemployment rate (2%) for this group is right around half that of those with some a high school diploma (4%) and close to half for those with some college (3.8%) (p. 28, Figure 2.11).

The numbers of individuals with a bachelor’s degree who make use of public assistance programs such as Medicaid, SNAP, and housing assistance are extremely low compared to their less-educated counterparts. Half as many people with bachelor’s degrees are on Medicaid (12%) as those with some college but no degree (24%); only 3% of those with bachelor’s degrees are SNAP recipients, and only 1% use housing assistance (p. 35, Figure 2.17). The overall poverty rate among households in which at least one adult has a bachelor’s degree is 4% (p. 34, Figure 2.16a).

Of course, not being on public assistance in any of those ways seems a pretty low bar to set for how much better off you’ll be with a bachelor’s degree—but consider the fact that these programs are used most of the time on a temporary basis (in other words, for getting through a rough patch), and the numbers suggest that you’ll be much less likely to need to need to turn to those channels to get through.

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