Education is not an expense, it's an investment, right?
Well ... kind of.
A newly released Georgetown study finds that a college degree doesn't always guarantee a win in the earnings game: choice of occupation, researchers say, is sometimes more important, in terms of monetary return, than attainment of higher education.
The new report, "The College Payoff: Education, Occupation, Lifetime Earnings," released Thursday by the Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The researchers calculated a lifetime-earnings figure for full-time, full-year workers with various levels of education, from elementary school to doctoral and professional degrees.
“On average, people with more education and higher attainment make more than people with less education,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the center and co-author of the report, in an announcement. “But, major and occupation matter just as much as degree level. For example, 28 percent of people with an associate’s degree make at least as much as the average bachelor’s degree holder -- mostly due to occupational choice.”
The actual job that someone performs, then, has a significant effect on earnings.
Occupations in the STEM fields, for example, generally pay much more than teaching jobs. An engineer with a postsecondary certificate or some college education and no degree can earn a great deal more than a teacher with a bachelor's degree, the study points out.
Earnings, of course, are not a perfect measure of economic value. The data does not take assests into account, so a person who starts a business and then goes into early retirement, for instance, would likely fall relatively low on the earnings totem pole.
All in all, "what you take away from this[...]is the devil is really in the detail," Dr. Carnevale told the Chronicle of Higher Education. A program of study should let prospective students know what fields its graduates work in, and how much they make, he said.
An academic program "ought to be able to tell people where this takes you, other than where it takes you intellectually."
The study comes amidst talk that the rising cost of higher education has created a bubble, as well as a push for college accountability.
In a separate study, the Center estimated that by 2018, 63 percent of U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education; today, approximately 41 percent of U.S. residents have a college degree.