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Column: Ignore the Debt ‘Crisis’: College Remains a Good Investment

The trillion-dollar student debt burden has spawned many debates about the value of college. Average tuition costs have gone up faster than the rate of inflation. The cost of college today is, in inflation-adjusted terms, roughly double what it was in 1980. This creates legitimate concerns about the continued affordability of a college education.

But the debaters often have their facts wrong. Very few Americans graduate with $100,000 in debt; college makes more sense today than ever; and no, our universities aren’t plundering their endowments to fund college dorms and football stadiums. Among the myths:

The financial return for going to college is less now than it used to be, because of the high cost of tuition and challenging employment prospects for recent graduates.

If anything, the value of an investment in college is higher now than it’s ever been. The college premium (the difference between the earnings of college graduates and high school graduates) is at its highest level ever.

It is true that in the years since the Great Recession, wages for recent college graduates have declined about 5 percent, but wages for those without a college degree have declined more than twice that, between 10 and 12 percent, increasing the college premium. Furthermore, the proportion of recent graduates who have gotten jobs coming out of college has been virtually unchanged from before the recession. In contrast, the employment rate for high school graduates and associate-degree holders has dropped by 8 to 10 percent.

Similarly, throughout the recession, the overall unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders has consistently been half that of non-college graduates.

Colleges are not preparing students with the skills needed in the current workplace.

All of the economic data suggests the exact opposite — that the productivity of U.S. college graduates in the workplace is increasing.

The broadest measure of the productivity differential between high school graduates and college graduates is how much employers are willing to pay for the latter over the former. This is known as the college premium, and it has increased steadily since the 1970s. This is not due to a diminished supply of college graduates (indeed, the supply has risen over that period).

The college premium is larger in the United States than in virtually any other economically developed country. Across the 34 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, employers on average are willing to pay 1.8 times as much for a college graduate as they are for an unskilled worker. But in the United States, employers pay 2.6 times as much for a college graduate. This, in spite of the fact that the supply of college graduates in the United States is among the highest in the OECD.

On average, students are now borrowing $X amount to pay for their college education.

This is a myth, or at the very least misleading, for almost any figure reported in the national press. (Though the reported figures vary, the amount is generally more than $25,000.) There are several reasons for this, principally that the data being reported are generally based on one or another report of outstanding student loan balances or average debt levels for those with loans.

What most people are interested in, and what most people interpret these figures to represent, is how much a typical student must borrow to finance an undergraduate (bachelor’s) degree.

Unfortunately, most figures reported lump together all student loan debt — for both undergraduate degrees and professional degrees. Furthermore, they report data on the average (mean) debt level among those who borrowed, not the median debt among all students, both those who borrowed and those who did not.

Data on debt levels at time of graduation is far harder to obtain. The Department of Education periodically gathers this information, but its most recent report covers those who received bachelor’s degrees in 2008. This study showed the following debt levels among the graduating seniors nationwide.

34.4 percent graduated with no debt.

12.0 percent graduated with $1 to $9,999 in debt.

18.2 percent graduated with $10,000 to $19,999 in debt.

15.5 percent graduated with $20,000 to $29,999 in debt.

8.9 percent graduated with $30,000 to $39,999 in debt.

5.3 percent graduated with $40,000 to $49,999 in debt.

5.3 percent graduated with $50,000 to $99,999 in debt.

0.5 percent graduated with over $100,000 in debt.

As you can see, the median debt (i.e., 50th percentile) level for all graduating seniors is slightly above $10,000 for those receiving a bachelor’s degree. This is probably less than an average new car loan.

The report also breaks this down by sectors: median debt at public institutions is less than $10,000; at private nonprofit institutions it is in the $10,000-19,999 range; and at private for-profits it is in the $30,000-39,999 range.

These levels have no boubtgone up since 2008, but they are nowhere near what is usually reported as the “average student indebtedness.”

College indebtedness — now at more than a trillion dollars and second only to mortgage debt — is at a crisis level.

College debt now exceeds total credit-card debt and total auto loans, both of which have dropped since the beginning of the recession. It is in fact the only kind of household debt that continued to increase throughout the recession.

There are three reasons for the increase. First, more students are going to college. Second, a higher percentage of them are borrowing to finance their education. And third, the amount they are borrowing has increased.

Obviously, the first reason is to be applauded. It is in the interest of the students and the nation that more high school graduates go on to college.

The fact that more students are borrowing more to attend college is the result of several different factors, only partly the increased cost of tuition. Another major factor is a marked decline in college savings. According to Moody’s, during the past three years, the proportion of families with any college savings dropped from 60 percent to 50 percent, and those who saved set aside an average of only $11,781, down from $21,615 three years ago (a 45 percent decline).

What this means is that more families are substituting debt for college savings. But these are just alternative ways of spreading the cost of college over multiple years. This is certainly no more worrisome than the switch from buying refrigerators with debt rather than layaway plans.

But even more important is the fact that college spending is an investment in human capital. The Hamilton Project estimates that a student’s spending on college has a financial return of over 15 percent, more than twice the average return of a stock market investment over the past 60 years.

When corporate America increases its debt to invest in physical capital — new factories, etc. — we do not consider it a crisis. It is a positive investment in future productivity. Similarly, when individuals borrow to invest in their own human capital, this is an investment in future productivity.

College costs are increasing faster than inflation largely because of wasteful spending on, for example, lavish dorms, recreation centers and sports facilities.

In a university’s overall budget, capital costs for “amenities” (such as recreation centers) constitute a very small fraction of the budget. Amortized over the life of the asset, they may account for a few dollars of the annual tuition bill, but not much more.

Ironically, one of the main factors pushing up costs at universities is the fact that the college premium — the wages paid to highly educated employees — is higher than ever. College costs are dominated by employee salaries, and most of these employees (whether faculty, staff or administrators) are themselves highly educated. So the same phenomenon that increases the financial return of going to college for students also increases the cost of attending college!

John Etchemendy is Stanford University’s provost. Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Corporate Governance .