Does the Return on Investment Justify High College Costs?

President Obama sent a shot across the bow of higher education in his 2012 State of the Union Address when he said, "Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down." Was this a well-researched policy statement intended to increase the competitiveness of our nation, or an appeal to young voters and their parents during an election cycle?

Whatever the reason, it has started an active and heated dialog about the costs of higher education. Let me put my bias on the table: I believe deeply in the economic and human value of high-quality education at all levels. So, of course, this thinly-veiled threat of government intervention (price controls?) caught my attention. Yes, it was bound to happen sooner or later: just a few years ago, the escalating cost of healthcare was the public scapegoat. Higher education was due its turn at the political whipping post.

There is no sidestepping the fact that the cost of a college degree is a major financial stressor for most American families. Next to your home, a college education for your child is one of the most expensive "investments" you will likely ever make. So is it worth it?

Critics have actually begun to question the financial value of a college degree. The cost has indeed increased significantly over the years. But rather than just examining the cost, a better question would be to evaluate the return on the investment that this advanced education provides. Here the economics get a little murky, but under reasonable assumptions, a university degree still pays off handsomely. Some rough math provides insight: the "all in" sticker price for a four-year degree varies widely, from $75K at, say, Florida State to more than $200K at Harvard.

Typically, the costs to families are much less when aid and merit support are factored in. So what does this investment get you? Individuals with a Bachelor's degree can expect to earn $2.27M over their lifetimes, while those with only a high school diploma will earn $1.3M, according to US News.

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