Q&A: How Costly Is College?

Q: I’ve enjoyed your articles on college finance and whether it’s really worth it to pay six figures for a college education. But wouldn’t bypassing a college education cost our kids a boatload of cash over the course of their lifetime — even if the college’s costs are obscene? – E. Birkhead, New York City

A: That’s a fair question, and one that’s tough to answer with any certainty.

Studies show that people who graduate from college usually make more money over the course of their lifetime than those who don’t. In a widely-cited statistic from the College Board, a college grad will earn roughly $800,000 more than a high school grad.

A more recent study by the American Institutes for Research cuts that gap significantly to a $279,893 lifetime earnings advantage for college graduates over high school graduates. AIR says that most studies don’t fully take into account key factors like college tuition, interest on loans and graduating into a tough job market (like the one we’re seeing now).

Also, the more recent the study, the tighter the gap. AIR points out many studies that compare earnings of high school grads and college grads are more than 10 years old. That skews the numbers significantly, considering the average four-year cost of college tuition and fees in 1999 was $15,518, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2009-2010, that figure spiked to $26,273.

So you can see why your question can’t be answered with certitude. But still, let’s have some fun with it.

Let’s take the College Board number — at $800,000 — and leave it there for a moment.

Now, we take the $200,000 you’d need to get a gold-plated Ivy league education over four years, and plow it into a conservative bond fund that pays 3% over 49 years — roughly the equivalent of a lifetime of work. The return on your investment? About $851,000.

Even ignoring the AIR study, the $851,000 more than makes up the $800,000 gap cited by the College Board. Plus, we didn’t even include the income an 18-year-old out in the workforce would earn during the four or five years they would have spent in college.

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