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How to Assess the Real Payoff of a College Degree

By Scott Carlson

Just listen to Dimitrius Graham sing. His voice soars up and down the scale like a bird carried on the wind. As a music major at Morgan State University, he seems keenly aware of certain realities about his life: His talent is undeniable and probably innate, and his future is promising but uncertain. He could make a career singing on Broadway or climbing the charts as a Billboard phenomenon. Or he could spend years singing for church groups and community theaters, for little or no money.

Because he went to college already able to sing, and because a career in singing is something of a financial crapshoot, one has to ask: Is he wasting his time and money, getting a degree in something that might not pay off? Mr. Graham, sitting in a campus food court with a group of friends, is quick with an answer.

"I can't not go to college," he says flatly. He just had a long conversation with a friend who was drifting at Morgan State, a historically black institution, and who was considering dropping out. He tried to dissuade his friend, saying that would lead to an unsteady retail job at best. "By the time you have worked there for a while, I will be done and will have a more secure job," he told his friend. For Mr. ­Graham, it was all about the job, the opportunities, the doors that would open with a parchment embossed in gothic lettering.

"There are so many things I could do," he says, "because I have networked so much. College is really full of opportunities."

Mr. Graham is a hopeful voice at a time when the public has lost some faith in the value of college education—perhaps irrationally. After all, numerous studies have shown that, on the whole, college graduates are far more likely to get jobs and earn more money than nongraduates are. To cite one: A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center asked, "Is College Worth It?" Most respondents said Americans were not getting a "good value" for the money they spent on a college education. And yet those who had graduated from college estimated that they were getting, on average, $20,000 more a year than they would without the degree—a figure that lines up with U.S. Census results. The college graduates in the study also said they were more satisfied with their jobs because of their degrees, and they credited college with helping them grow intellectually and socially.

But skepticism about the value of college persists—particularly among politicians, pundits, and number crunchers. "It's time to drop the college-for-all crusade," argues the financial columnist Robert J. Samuelson. "Do too many young people go to college?" asked a Wall Street Journal article in which experts debated "whether a lot of students would be better off spending their time and money somewhere else." And there was the acidic headline from a George Mason University economist: "How many college-educated janitors do we need?"

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