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Fourth Quarter 2019, 
Vol. 101, No. 4
Posted 2019-10-15

Is College Still Worth It? The New Calculus of Falling Returns

by William R. Emmons, Ana H. Kent, and Lowell R. Ricketts

The college income premium is the extra income earned by a family whose head has a college degree over the income earned by an otherwise similar family whose head does not have a college degree. This premium remains positive but has declined for recent graduates. The college wealth premium (extra net worth) has declined more noticeably among all cohorts born after 1940. Among families whose head is White and born in the 1980s, the college wealth premium of a terminal four-year bachelor’s degree is at a historic low; among families whose head is any other race and ethnicity born in that decade, the premium is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Among families whose head is of any race or ethnicity born in the 1980s and holding a postgraduate degree, the wealth premium is also indistinguishable from zero. Our results suggest that college and postgraduate education may be failing some recent graduates as a financial investment.