That's what the College Board tried to figure out in a new report titled "Education Pays," which details the financial, career and even health benefits of earning a college degree. The College Board started this study in 2004, updated it in 2007 and again this year. Its final results, however, have remained the same: employees with a four-year college degree earn much more and are less likely to be unemployed than those with just a high school diploma. Median earnings for full-time workers with bachelor's degrees in 2008 were $55,700, compared to $33,800 for those without them.
The report's authors say that the results are even more dramatic than the findings in the 2007 report. Back then, there was a 2.3 percentage point difference in unemployment rates between college grads and high-school-only grads. Now, the 2009 unemployment rate for college graduates over age 25 is 4.6%, compared to 9.7% for high school grads, a 4.6 percentage point difference.
The pay premium has also grown in the past decade. In the 25 to 34 age bracket in 2000, women with college degrees earned 60% more than female high school grads. For men, it was 54%. Now, those income differences have dramatically increased -- 79% more for women college grads, and 74% more for men.
The report also says a college degree benefits one's health and well-being, too. Graduates are more likely to vote, volunteer and exercise, and less likely to smoke or become obese.
By age 33, after 11 years of work, a college degree leads to higher earnings, the report says. "The key point is that for the typical student, the investment pays off very well over the course of a lifetime -- even considering the expense," the authors write.
Of course, not everyone agrees with the report's findings.One thing to keep in mind is that it was issued by the College Board, a membership organization representing colleges, so it's not likely to tell people that college is a waste of time. In fact, when the last "Education Pays" report came out in 2007, Charles Miller, the then chairman of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education, publicly criticized the College Board, accusing it of acting like a cheerleader for higher education by inflating the financial payoff of a college degree and underestimating its cost.
Also, the report glosses over the fact that some high school grads earn as much, if not more, than some college grads. There is great variability in outcomes, as Robert Lerman, an economics professor at American University, told the New York Times. "All is not lost if you don't go to college. There are other routes to improving your earnings, for example, credentials that demonstrate mastery of an occupational skill like plumbing."
Still, the report's critics (all college grads), do agree that education does pay. Even Miller, who believes the new report is still over inflating the benefits of a degree, doesn't think people should just give up on college. Instead, he says, the report's results are evidence of how higher education's financial system is broken, and the cost of getting that degree is getting harder for more people to achieve. It's a given that the majority of Americans -- college and high school grads alike -- can agree on that point.