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Is College Worth It?

Pursuing a college degree is a good decision for most, but not all.
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The message that everyone should go to college does a disservice to the 60 percent of students who do not finish their degrees within six years, according to new research from Brookings Center on Children and Families, a non-partisan research center in Washington. These students end up with debt that is not recouped by higher salaries later in life. And for low-income families, the impact is even worse.

"On average, getting a college degree is a good decision, but it isn't good for everyone. It's whether you finish, where you go, what you major in it, and what you do," said Isabel Sawhill, one of the authors of the report.

At the most selective schools, there is an 88 percent graduation rate over six years compared to 35 percent at non-competitive schools. That is why Sawhill was especially concerned with the return on investment from community college programs.

"They've been much celebrated as an alternative form of education, often with an occupational focus. But 70 percent are dropping out before getting a degree—that's totally unacceptable," Sawhill said.

The Brookings report also found that someone working in a science-oriented job with only a high school diploma can expect to earn more over a lifetime than someone with a bachelor's degree working in a field like education or the arts.

Overall, 14 percent of high school graduates make at least as much as those with a bachelor's, and 17 percent of those with a bachelor's make more than those with a professional degree.

The key is for students to know the monetary impact of a program so they can have reasonable expectations.

An April study from, a data firm based in Seattle, ranked 1,500 educational programs on their return on investments for 2013. There were 74 schools that showed a return of $1 million or more on the investment in an education, while 30 schools had a negative return on investment—meaning the cost of attending was more than what the students would make up with increased wages, even over a 30-year period.

The top-ranked schools all focus on engineering, including Harvey Mudd College, California Institute of Technology, Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and SUNY-Maritime College.

At the bottom of the rankings was the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, which had an opportunity cost of $155,000 to attend in 2012, including living expenses and lost wages from not working. The school had a graduation rate of 37 percent while its 30-year net return on investment was projected as a loss of $228,000, said.

Both Brookings and Payscale said they intended their reports to inform students about the long-term earnings prospects of certain institutions and college majors. The release of the data was timed to when most students make their college decisions. Payscale also releases an annual report in September, when students typically choose majors, to help them make informed choices about the long-term value of the careers they choose to pursue.

Katie Bardaro, lead economist for Payscale, said this survey also measures the "meaningfulness" of various degrees, rather than just the cold calculus of a salary. "A lot of the jobs that don't pay well do have a societal benefit," she said.

The key is for students to know the monetary impact of a program so they can have reasonable expectations. "Most people don't think about it. They choose based on name-brand factors and the availability of extracurricular and they think about fun. But a lot of those benefits are temporary, and earnings are permanent," Bardaro said.

Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences had the most-satisfied students, with a 97 percent ranking of high job meaning. A typical mid-career graduate, usually in a nursing field, earns $71,000.

Resources to find top programs include the Institute for Education Sciences College Navigator website and the College Scorecard by the U.S. Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center.