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College is still worthwhile, study finds

Despite rising tuition costs and the tough job market, college can pay off. The average take-home pay of college graduates is $38,950, compared with $21,500 for high school graduates.

December 29, 2011|By Walter Hamilton, Los Angeles Times

With college costs soaring and new graduates struggling to land jobs, is higher education still worth the money?

Yes, according to an analysis by one recent college graduate who has studied the issue carefully.

Sarah Millar, who is now gainfully employed as a research analyst at ConvergEx Group in New York, examined the topic in a new report combining hard numbers with her own experience as a 2011 graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Ct.

"Did I just waste the last four years of my life?" Millar writes. "Sure, I enjoyed my time at Trinity, but I could have used that time — and money, for that matter — to actually start a career."

The good news is that college pays off, Millar concludes, citing data from a variety of government and private sources.

The average take-home pay of college graduates is nearly twice that of their high school counterparts — $38,950 versus $21,500. Even factoring in student-loan payments, college graduates make more in their first year of work than those with only high school diplomas. And history shows that the college graduate can expect his or her income to increase 2.2% annually over a lifetime compared with 1.9% for someone with only a high school diploma.

The advantage of college shows most clearly in the vastly different unemployment rates of the two groups: 4.4% in November for those with college degrees compared with 9.6% for those with only high school diplomas (and an abysmal 13.8% for those who never finished high school).

The college graduates' earnings would exceed the high school graduates' by more than $1 million over 40 years. Financially speaking, college is worthwhile as long as the total four-year cost is less than $715,000 — which, at least at the moment, it is.

"The bottom line of this analysis is that college pays, literally and figuratively," Millar writes.

But Millar details the high price of higher ed.

College costs have climbed an average of 6.4% each year since 1981, far outdistancing the 0.4% annual rise in income growth, Millar said.

Students shelled out an average of $73,500 in tuition payments over the last four years. And when considering that a young person could have earned a cumulative $84,500 straight out of high school over four years, the college graduate is $158,000 in the hole. Add in the interest on student loans, and the student's deficit can top $200,000.

For comparison's sake, someone could buy a Subway or a Tasti D-Lite franchise for about the amount spent on college, Millar said.

She points out two factors to consider when deciding on college: the name brand of the school itself and the intended course of study.

Average starting salaries of new graduates generally are higher at big-name schools such as Caltech ($69,600) or Princeton ($56,900), Millar said. The average for a UCLA graduate is $49,200.

Perhaps more important is what a student majors in.

"A poetry major from UPenn may not fare as well as an electrical engineer from Penn State," Millar reasons.

walter.hamilton@latimes.com

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