I wrote the following guest editorial for the Mt. Lake Observer-Advocate, the home-town paper in the Minnesota community where I grew up:

College costs too much and students are graduating with too much debt. That’s why some wonder if it’s worth it. Unfortunately, the national debate over cost is obscuring the simple fact that a college degree is still the best investment people can make in their own futures.

Every spring when the Observer-Advocate publishes pictures of area graduates, I check to see how many will be attending college in the fall. After a career in higher education, I’m deeply grateful to those Mt. Lake High School teachers who encouraged and prepared me for college. Today, however, a degree is even more important than when I graduated.

The Pew Foundation recently found that in 2012, the average, annual earnings of Millennials (young people between 25 and 32) was $28,000 for high school graduates, $30,000 for those with some college (or holding associate arts degrees) and $45,500 for those with a bachelor’s degree or more. The New York Federal Reserve just released another study showing that on average, college graduates earn at least $1 million more in their lifetimes than high school graduates.

The Pew study also found that the unemployment rate for Millennials was 12.2% for high school grads, 8.1% for those with two-year degrees (or some college) and 3.8% for those with at least a bachelor’s. During the recession, college graduates held onto their jobs longer, but if they did lose them, they found new ones more quickly than those without degrees. A college education is also a hedge against poverty. According to the Pew study, 5.8% of Millennials who are college graduates live in poverty. This compares with 14.7% of those with 2-year degrees (or some college) and 21.8% of those with only high school degrees.

The lack of a college degree puts one in greater jeopardy going forward because the jobs of the future will require new training and skills. A Georgetown Universitystudy found that 72% of the jobs available in 1972 required a high school diploma or less. By 2010, only 41% of all jobs could be done by people with high school degrees. The researchers project that of the 164 million jobs expected in 2020, nearly two-thirds (64%) will require some college.

Although we can make no better investment in our own financial security than a college degree, it helps in other important ways as well.

A book by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, How College Affects Students, summarizes over three decades of research and thousands of studies on the impact of higher education. They found that college degrees increase students’ levels of critical thinking, verbal and quantitative skills and the level of general knowledge. Graduates have greater self-confidence and leadership skills, stronger social support systems and suffer lower levels of abuse and family violence. They are also more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke or engage in substance abuse. They have lower mortality rates and are more likely to carry health insurance.   In this sense, college is not only a personal benefit, but also a public good.

When we earn college degrees, it also helps our community. Pascarella and Terenzini found that people with some college are more likely to vote, participate in the political process, give blood and serve as volunteers. They are also less likely to draw on public assistance. In addition, college increases students’ “level of principled moral reasoning.” Given that so many people appear to have lost their moral compasses, this matters more now than ever.

We’re all concerned about rising costs so let’s help families find ways to make college more accessible. Every institution offers a range of scholarships so contact college financial aid offices, early and often! It’s the staff’s job to help families find every potential source of aid including federal programs such as Pell Grants, Stafford Loans and Work Study. High school counselors will know about local scholarships, state grants and tax credits. These can help make college much more affordable.

The starting point, however, is helping high school students understand college as an investment and encouraging them to enroll. A college education not only benefits those who earn the degree, it’s a wonderful investment in the health and vitality of our community.

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