College Degrees: Why Aren't More People Making the Investment?

The benefits of higher education have continued to grow over the past 30 years—specifically, greater earnings and lower unemployment for those with a college degree. With this in mind, one might assume more students would invest in a college education. Yet, the high school dropout rate has remained at nearly 20 percent and the fraction of high school graduates who do not enroll in any form of college (one-third) has not changed at all. Even though a greater percentage of high school graduates enter college today than 30 years ago, college dropout rates have increased, lowering the college graduation rate.

If the benefits to education appear to be so high, why don’t more people seek a college degree? Some possible factors explored here include higher tuition costs, changes in assistance programs, fear of failure, earnings risk, and the recent recession and financial crisis.


Measuring the Benefits of College

It is well documented that college graduates earn more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma (hereafter referred to as “high school graduates”). A measure that highlights this difference is called the skill premium. This premium measures the difference between the average earnings of those with a four-year college degree and those without and considers factors such as school choice, major, occupation, and geographic location. Recent estimates suggest that the average skill premium for those with a four-year college degree is between 65 and 75 percent, meaning they earn an average of between 65 and 75 percent more than high school graduates.

Supply and demand help explain this phenomenon. Over time, the demand for college graduates has increased faster than the supply of college graduates, and therefore earnings for college graduates have increased. On the other hand, the demand for less-educated workers has decreased and so have their earnings. Figure 1 clearly shows the divergence between earnings for college graduates and high school graduates. (The space between the lines in Figure 1 is a measurement of the skill premium. It is easy to see that the difference between the college graduates’ line and the other two lines has grown—not so much due to an increase in earnings for those with a college degree as a decrease in earnings for those without a college degree.) From 1980 to 2008, the skill premium for male college graduates increased by 26 percent over those with some college and by 33 percent over high school graduates. (It is common to use male earnings because of issues specific to the female labor force participation rate. For example, women with the expectation of high earnings tend to enter the labor force, while women with the expectation of low earnings tend to elect to stay home.)

Figure 1

Real Median Earnings Men

SOURCE: College Board Advocacy and Policy Center and authors’ calculations.

In addition to higher lifetime earnings, a college degree brings another substantial benefit—a significantly lower unemployment rate (Figure 2). Between 2000 and 2007, the average unemployment rate was 4.6 percent for high school graduates but only 2.4 percent for those with a college degree—a difference of 2.2 percentage points. During the recent recession, the rates diverged even more, with a difference of 6 percentage points.


Figure 2

Unemployment Rates by Education Level Men and Women

NOTE: “Some college” includes associate degrees.
SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-4.


What Drives College Participation Rates?

In recent years, the college participation rate has grown substantially. According to a 2010 study by economist Gonzalo Castex, between 1980 and 2000 the rate increased from 41 percent to 68 percent. It varied widely across groups, however, with higher participation rates for students with high ability (based on standardized tests) and those from high-income families. For example, the gap in college participation rates between students from the lowest-ability quartile and the highest-ability quartile was more than 60 percentage points.

To try to explain the growth in the participation rate and the differences across groups, Castex considered four factors: increases in the college skill premium, increases in the availability of merit-based college aid (grants and scholarships), shifts in both the distribution of family income and individual ability, and increases in tuition costs. Among the four factors, he found that an increase in the college skill premium is the most influential factor affecting college participation. For some, increased availability of merit-based aid reduced the cost of a college education, making college more desirable. According to Castex, between 1980 and 2000, the ratio of grants awarded to high-ability students to the cost of education increased by 70 percent for low-income students and by 50 percent for high-income students. This ratio changed little for students with low ability. Castex found that this redistribution of aid accounts for 6 percent of the aggregate increase in college enrollment and has a larger effect for students with high ability.

Holding ability constant, Castex found that students in low- and middle-income families have greater access to need-based grants and scholarships. Since 1980, there has been a significant change in the relationship between student ability and family income. Castex’s findings suggest there are now more students with high ability in middle-income families than in 1980, implying more grants for middle-income students and, therefore, an increase in college participation.

Tuition costs influence college participation as well, but perhaps not as much as might be anticipated. Average college tuition increased by about 150 percent between 1980 and 2000, according to the College Board. It seems reasonable that higher tuition would put college out of reach for more families and deter enrollment because of a lower return on investment, but higher tuition costs can be offset by more borrowing. Castex found that increased tuition costs reduced the overall college participation rate by only 3 percent (7 percent for students with low ability).

College is a risky, irreversible investment, which makes some students hesitant to commit. Two terms that define risk associated with college are failure risk and earnings risk. Failure risk refers to the possibility that a student will not complete college. Earnings risk refers to the possibility that a college graduate may not find a job or may not find a job with the level of expected earnings.


Failure Risk

According to a 2009 study by economists John Bound, Michael Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner, college failure rates are close to 50 percent at four-year public colleges. In addition, as the rate of college enrollment has increased, completion rates have decreased. Generally, students who drop out of college tend to do so after two years, and the costs of failure can be very high. With the two years of tuition expenses and forgone earnings, college dropouts may see no return on their investment. Also, many dropouts fail to earn any skill premium because most specialized learning takes place in the later years of college. Therefore, failure risk warrants consideration and may be a prime reason many students choose not to attend college.


Earnings Risk

Even with a college degree, there is no guarantee regarding future earnings or employment. Attending college may or may not pay off as planned. A May 2011 New York Times article by Catherine Rampell reported that in 2009 slightly over half of college graduates under the age of 25 held jobs requiring a college degree. Moreover, 22 percent of this same group was not working at all, and the remaining 22 percent was underemployed, meaning they held jobs below their skill level.

Even though this recent underemployment may be largely due to the state of the economy, some college graduates still do not earn the skill premium they expected—and invested in—because of factors such as their school performance, degree choice, or quality of life issues (e. g., purposefully taking a lower-paying, less-stressful job).   

It is possible for relatively young college graduates to immediately earn less than they expected. Because earnings tend to grow over a lifetime, starting with lower-than-expected earnings can potentially reduce one’s lifetime earnings, making earnings risk worthy of consideration as well.


Impact of the Recession

Traditionally, economic slowdowns have not been associated with declining college enrollment rates. In bad economic times, with fewer good jobs available, many people choose to go to college instead of work. During the most recent recession, however, college enrollment rates declined. The housing crash and financial crisis may be largely to blame, making college unaffordable for some families. In addition, many college endowments lost significant value, likely resulting in fewer scholarships. And additional money was hard to come by—the financial crisis made it more difficult for households to borrow.

College graduates felt the effects of a tight economy as well. The often-feared earnings risk became a reality for many, as the New York Times article indicated. Since the start of the recession, the unemployment rate for college graduates has more than doubled, from under 2 percent in 2007 to a peak of 5 percent at the end of 2010, and roughly one-quarter of recent graduates remain underemployed. Although the recession ended, the economy has experienced a “jobless recovery”: Job growth has not kept pace with economic growth. The unemployment rate remains elevated. Although the skill premium seems to have increased during the recession, the unemployment and underemployment of college graduates gives credence to concerns about earnings risk—investing in college can be risky. Poor outcomes for college graduates may be another factor explaining the slow growth in college enrollment rates and elevated college dropout rates.



Even though a college degree can bring significant, long-term benefits, many avoid college altogether or fail to complete their degrees. Factors that influence people’s choices regarding college include higher tuition costs and changes in the availability of financial aid. The main factors holding down college enrollment rates, however, appear to be fear of failure and earnings risk. The recent recession and financial crisis added credence to these fears, with many college graduates left underemployed or unemployed. Yet, even though earning a college degree entails risk, all but a very few college graduates will earn substantially more earnings over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma.


Prashant and Lange, Fabian. “The Anemic Response of Skill Investment to Skill Premium Growth.” VOX, May 6, 2008;

Athreya, Kartik and Eberly, Janice. “Risk and the Response of College Enrollment to Skill Premia.” Northwestern University, unpublished manuscript, January 2012.

Bound, John; Lovenheim, Michael and Turner, Sarah. “Why Have College Completion Rates Declined? An Analysis of Changing Student Preparation and Collegiate Resources.” NBER Working Paper 15566, National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2009.

Castex, Gonzalo. “Essays on Human Capital Formation.” University of Rochester, Ph.D. dissertation, August 2010.

College Board;

Garriga, Carlos and Keightley, Mark P. “A General Equilibrium Theory of College with Education Subsidies, In-School Labor Supply, and Borrowing Constraints.” Working Paper No. 2007-051A, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, November 2007.

Goldin, Claudia and Katz, Lawrence F. “Long-Run Changes in the Wage Structure: Narrowing, Widening, Polarizing.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Issue 2, 2007.

Hungerford, Thomas and Solon, Gary. “Sheepskin Effects in the Returns to Education.” Review of Economics and Statistics, 69(1), February 1987.

Lange, Fabian and Topel, Robert. “The Social Value of Education and Human Capital,” in Eric Hanushek and Finis Welch, eds., Handbook of Education Economics. Volume 1. New York: North-Holland, 2006.

Rampell, Catherine. “Many with New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling.” New York Times, May 18, 2011.


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