George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Despite emerging division on value of college, data show it's still worth it, sociologist says

Thu, 09/07/2017

LAWRENCE — Despite a recent national survey showing an increasing divide in whether Americans see value in a college degree, a University of Kansas researcher on economic inequality said lifetime earnings data still show a clear advantage to earning one.

A recent NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll found Americans were becoming more skeptical that a four-year college degree is worth the cost, as 49 percent agreed while 47 percent declined 'because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off." The survey found that skepticism higher — 65 percent — among white working-class Americans.

ChangHwan Kim, associate professor of sociology, is available to discuss the implications of people's attitudes in the survey and his research on the value of a college degree. Kim was part of a research team in 2015 that was the first to use the Social Security Administration's personal income tax data tracking the same individuals over 20 years to measure individual lifetime earnings. Previous research was only based on self-reported survey data.

The data revealed a significant gap in earnings among those who only graduated high school and someone with a college degree. The lifetime earnings gap between high school and college graduates, including those with a graduate degree, is around $1.13 million for men and $792,000 for women.

When important socio-demographic variables that influence both earnings and the probability of college completion were accounted for, the study showed that a man who earned a bachelor's degree would earn $840,000 more over 50 years than a man with a high school diploma. For a woman, on average the gap is $587,000 between earning a bachelor's degree and a high school diploma.

"It's interesting to see data on how people view a college degree, especially certain divides among socioeconomic groups," Kim said. "However, the data on actual earnings still show a college degree will yield a significant earnings advantage for someone over their lifetime."

He said that in a new project he is examining the potential changing economic value of a college education and whether it has diminished since 2000 or 2008 when the Great Recession began. Contrary to some expectations that it might decrease in value, Kim said in the early stages he has found no evidence to support that.

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