Kamenetz gives a great overview of the issues and parrots the oft-cited statistic that people with bachelor's degrees still earn an average of about $1.2 million more than high school graduates over a 40-year career.
Here's the problem. Think about the college graduates you know and compare them to the non-college graduates. On average, is the fact that one has a diploma and the other doesn't the biggest difference? I would argue that college graduates are, on average, smarter, more ambitious, and more focused than their peers. That has nothing to do with the fact that they went to college.
Try this thought experiment: Imagine reversing the roles of everyone in society. Let's say Warren Buffett dropped out of a high school and, after realizing he wasn't cut out for the career in cosmetology he wanted, began working at a grocery store. Let's also imagine that the homeless guy on the street went to Princeton.
If we reversed the educational backgrounds of everyone in America, would their earnings flip too? I seriously doubt it. I'm going to guess (with the obvious caveat that we'll never really know) that Warren Buffett would have been more successful than the homeless guy regardless of who went to college where.
The bottom line is that, in order to determine whether college is a good investment, we would need to know the marginal value of a diploma on a person to person basis. Differences beyond degrees between those who attended college and those who didn't raise serious questions about the validity of the $1.2 million figure.
That said, going to college is probably a pretty good bet for most kids. To make it a good deal, we have to focus on controlling the costs, a topic I covered in a recent post.