College Pays Off for Both Students and Society, Study Finds

College Pays Off for Both Students and Society, Study Finds

A college education benefits both individual students and society by advancing economic mobility and supporting civic engagement, a report from the College Board argues.

The latest edition of the organization's triennial report, Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society (43 pages, PDF), examined earnings and employment patterns by educational attainment and found a correlation not only between education and median earnings but also between education level and health outcomes, social mobility, and civic participation. The median income of adults age 25 and older with a bachelor's degree (and no advanced degree), for instance, was $24,900 higher in 2018 than it was for those with only a high school diploma ($65,400 vs. $40,500). The report also found that the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree or higher is about half of what it is for high school graduates, while the poverty rate for those with a bachelor's degree was 9 percentage points lower than it was for those with a high school diploma only (4 percent vs. 13 percent).

According to the report, 68 percent of those who attended the most selective colleges and whose parents were in the lowest income quintile ended up in the top two income quintiles as adults, compared with 72 percent and 76 percent of those from the middle and highest-income quintiles (although the report notes that children from lower-income backgrounds are less likely to attend a selective institution). And individuals who had earned at least a bachelor's degree were less likely to be on Medicaid than those with a high school diploma (10 percent vs. 28 percent), qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (3 percent vs. 12 percent), or receive federal housing assistance (1 percent vs. 4 percent).

The study also found that those with a college degree were more likely to enjoy benefits such as a retirement account and health insurance, less likely to smoke, and more likely to report exercising regularly. In addition, 42 percent of those with a bachelor's degree and 52 percent of those with an advanced degree volunteered in 2017, compared with 19 percent of those with a high school diploma, while in the 2016 presidential election 73 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds with at least a bachelor's degree voted, compared with 41 percent of those with a high school diploma.

While college enrollment and completion rates have continued to rise, the report found that even among students with similar academic performance in high school, those from low-income backgrounds enroll in and graduate from college at lower rates than those from higher-income backgrounds. In terms of race/ethnicity, 25 percent of African-American women and 20 percent of African-American men between the ages of 25 and 29 had at least a bachelor's degree as of 2018, compared with 22 percent and 17 percent of Latinx and 47 percent and 39 percent of white Americans.

"Although obtaining a college degree can mean forgone wages during a time when a student is also paying tuition, by age 33 the average bachelor's degree recipient will have recouped those costs," said Jennifer Ma, senior policy research scientist at the College Board and a co-author of the report. "A higher education is an investment that pays significant dividends over the course of a lifetime — even for students who accumulate some debt to obtain a degree."

"Given the high payoffs of postsecondary education to both individuals and society as a whole, it is important that we increase college opportunity for all who can benefit and also improve completion rates," said College Board vice president of research Jessica Howell. "Higher education is a powerful driver of social mobility for lower-income students, and it's critical that these students have every opportunity to attend and thrive in college."