By Liz Weston
LOS ANGELES Feb 19 Some Americans may question
whether a college education is still a good value, but a recent
study found most young college graduates see their degrees as
They have good reason to feel that way. The same Pew
Research poll found that the earnings gap between young people
with and without college degrees was the widest in nearly 50
years. People with only high school educations were far more
likely to be unemployed and to live in poverty than those who
had college degrees.
The Pew study, which was released last week, found that 72
percent of college graduates aged 25 to 32 said their degrees
had already paid off, and 17 percent said they would in the
future. Of those who borrowed money to pay for school, 86
percent said their degrees had paid off or would pay off,
according to the report titled "The Rising Cost of Not Going to
The findings contrast with a previous Pew poll that found
Americans questioning whether college was a good value. The
survey, taken in 2011, found 57 percent of Americans felt
college students received only a fair or poor return on their
tuition fees. Yet nearly nine out of 10 of the college-educated
respondents said their own degrees had proven to be good values.
Rising costs and soaring student loan debt - the average
member of the class of 2012 owes $29,400, according to the
Institute for College Access & Success - have led some to
question whether college degrees can still offer a reasonable
The answer in the most recent Pew study was an overwhelming
Besides polling millennials ages 25 to 32, Pew analysts used
U.S. Census Bureau data to examine previous generations at that
age: the Silent Generation in 1965; the early baby boomers in
1979; the late boomers in 1986 and Generation Xers in 1995.
Here is what the Pew researchers found:
* College graduates aged 25 to 32 who were working full-time
earned $17,500 more in 2013 than their counterparts without
degrees, the biggest gap in 50 years. In 1965, recent college
graduates in the same age range earned just $7,499 more than
high school graduates in today's dollars.
* Inflation-adjusted earnings rose for college graduates to
$45,500 in 2013 from $38,833 in 1965.
* Full-time employment in 2013 was higher among college
graduates aged 25 to 32 (89 percent) than people without degrees
(82 percent), and unemployment was lower at 3.8 percent versus
* People without high school degrees are far more likely to
be poor now than in the past. The poverty rate of the millennial
group (16 percent) is twice that their baby boomer predecessors
in 1979 (8 percent). Among college graduates, the rate also
doubled, to 6 percent of millennials from percent of the
boomers. But of those with only a high school diploma, 22
percent live in poverty - three times the 7 percent rate among
boomers at the same age.
These statistics hint at a bigger trend: Not only are the
college educated doing better than previous generations, but
people with only a high school diploma are doing much worse.
"People with only high school educations aren't keeping up,"
said economist Rick Fry, senior research associate and co-author
of the study. "Their earnings have declined."
Median pay for a high school graduate fell to $28,000 in
2013 from an inflation-adjusted $31,384 in 1965. High school
graduates these days make 62 percent of the typical college
graduate's salary, down from 81 percent in 1965.
The decline in the value of a high school diploma is so
dramatic that it nearly offsets the gains experienced by the
better educated in this age group. Overall, millennials earned a
median $35,000, compared with an inflation-adjusted $34,883 for
early boomers in 1979 and $32,173 for Generation Xers in 1995.
Of course, not everyone who fails to get a college degree is
doomed to struggle.
"There are still going to be skilled and talented people who
will be able to succeed (after high school) without any further
education," Fry said. "They're the exceptions."
What about the idea that today's college graduates are
doomed to work in jobs that do not utilize their skills? The
employed millennials the Pew researchers interviewed did not
seem to share that view. About 86 percent said their jobs were
either career positions or stepping stones to them.
"We've heard about how overqualified and underutilized
college-educated young adults are," Fry said. "But only 14
percent said 'this is just a job I'm doing to get by.'"
Fry said one-third of millennials had college degrees,
compared with one quarter of early boomers. The U.S. Labor
Department estimates that by 2018, 63 percent of jobs will
require at least some college.
"The message about the importance of getting an education is
seeping in," Fry said.