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Wednesday, December 15, 2021

College America and Non-College America

Daniel A. Cox at the Survey Center on American Life:
In a time of surging student loan debt, the benefits of a college education have once again become the subject of scrutiny and public debate. For younger Americans, the lesson of the Great Recession was that a four-year degree could no longer guarantee the career success and financial stability it once promised. What’s more, the cost of a college education has exploded, leaving many graduates facing mounting debts. Many Americans are now left wondering: Is a college degree worth it?

Amid this growing discussion, scholars, policy analysts, and legislators have been trying to quantify the financial advantage a secondary degree provides and measure its trade-offs. Despite concerns about rising student debt, the economic value of a college education is clear. Since the Great Recession, most of the jobs that have been created require a college degree, and the lifetime earnings of college graduates far outstrip those of Americans without a college education.[1]

But there is another reason a college education might be worthwhile, even without the evident financial advantages a degree offers. College graduates live increasingly different lives than those without a college degree. They are more socially connected, civically engaged, and active in their communities than those without a degree. I find that college graduates have more extensive systems of social support and a larger number of close friends. Consequently, they feel lonely and isolated less often.

Part of the reason for the divergence in social experiences between those with a college degree and those without is the decline in civic and social infrastructure that once served the needs of all Americans—but was particularly important for those without a college education. Today, Americans without a college education are far less likely to marry and become involved in religious life. Marriage and religious participation have been, and continue to be, strongly associated with greater social engagement and stronger community attachments.

In the wake of rising tuition costs and a marked shift in culture on college campuses, it makes sense to carefully weigh the benefits of a college education. But any analysis that does not take into account the profound social advantages a college education provides is missing a key part of what that education actually offers.