About This Site

The Value of Higher Education website, created by Educational Testing Service (ETS), is devoted to highlighting issues and trends in higher education. We provide news, insight, resources and a positive platform for discussion about America's ever-changing higher education system.


With new college graduates finding a tough job market and mounting student debt, questions still remain on whether a college education is worth it. David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times "The Upshot" blog reports on a newly released data from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

According to the report, the pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year. Leonhardt writes that, "Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That's up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s."

International Graduate Admissions Rise Steadily Even as Applications Slow

American graduate schools are showing continued interest in students from overseas, but there are signs the feelings aren't mutual.

So reads the headline on a Chronicle of Higher Education story on a new report released by the Council of Graduate Schools. According to the Chronicle, “The report says offers of admissions to international applicants grew at a steady pace of 9 percent from 2012 to 2013, making it the fourth consecutive year of growth. Yet during the same time period, applications from overseas grew only 2 percent, much lower than in previous years. That slowdown is largely due to a 3-percent decline in applications from China, which sends the largest number of undergraduates and graduate students to the United States.”

The article continues: The council first noted the decline in a report released in April. In its latest report, it has revised some of the application figures slightly and provided new data on offers of admission, which are often good, though not perfect, predictors of final enrollment figures.

The findings are based on responses from 290 graduate schools that were surveyed in June and July. The respondents award a majority of the graduate degrees given to international students in the United States and include many of the country's largest graduate institutions.

'A Very Big Barrel'

Despite the drop in applications from China, offers of admission to Chinese students rose 5 percent. Debra W. Stewart, president of the council, said the disparity between the two figures does not necessarily mean that graduate schools have been forced to take less-qualified students because the pool of applicants from China is so large.

"It's an obvious thing to think: Oh, they must be digging deep into the barrel to fill classes," she said. "You have to understand this is a very big barrel, and the quality at the top of the barrel is very high."

However, she said that if the trend continued it could be a problem, especially given how much graduate schools rely on foreign students to fill seats in engineering and sciences courses.

In more positive news, she attributed the steady growth in offers of admission to a surprising surge in interest from India, which sends the second-largest number of students to American graduate schools. Applications grew 22 percent, and offers of admission rose 27 percent this year. In 2012 applications increased 3 percent, while offers remained stagnant.

"The real driver here is India," said Ms. Stewart. It's unclear what triggered the change, she said, noting that a variety of factors, such as local economies and student perceptions, could play a role. "The India market has always been volatile."

Offers of admission also grew to students from the Middle East and Brazil, 12 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Jeff Allum, the council's director of research and policy analysis, said government-scholarship programs in those places contributed to the increases. He cautioned, however, that the overall number of students from those places was small. Brazilian students, for example, make up 1 percent of the total number of offers to foreign students.

Offers to students from South Korea, the country that sends the third-largest number of students, continued a downward trend, falling 10 percent. Since 2010 the pace of offers has either been flat or declined. Applications from the country have shown similar stagnation.

Mr. Allum said he had anticipated those numbers would improve, but so far there has been no luck. "I always expected some kind of rebound, if you will, from South Korean students after the Great Recession in 2008, kind of like what we've been seeing from students in India," he said. "But that really hasn't happened."

Read more on how Council of Graduate School members view the recent changes in overseas applications.

Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education

From the Brookings Institute comes this interesting Hamilton Project policy memo that provides " … thirteen economic facts on the growth of income inequality and its relationship to social mobility in America; on the growing divide in educational opportunities and outcomes for high- and low-income students; and on the pivotal role education can play in increasing the ability of low-income Americans to move up the income ladder." Note Chapter 3 on the pivotal role education plays in improving social mobility … especially higher education.

"Promoting increased social mobility requires reexamining a wide range of economic, health, social, and education policies. Higher education has always been a key way for poor Americans to find opportunities to transform their economic circumstances. In a time of rising inequality and low social mobility, improving the quality of and access to education has the potential to increase equality of opportunity for all Americans.

  • A college degree can be a ticket out of poverty
  • The sticker price of college has increased significantly in the past decade, but the actual price for many lower- and middle-income students has not
  • Few investments yield as high a return as a college degree
  • Students are borrowing more to attend college – and defaulting more frequently on their loans.
  • New low-cost interventions can encourage more low-income students to attend, remain enrolled in, and increase economic diversity at even top colleges.

Pew Report Finds Recent College Graduates Well-Protected Against Worst Effects of Recession

How Much Protection Does a College Degree Afford? The Impact of the Recession on Recent College Graduates, the newest research from Pew's Economic Mobility Project, reveals that a four-year college degree helped shield the latest graduates from a range of poor employment outcomes during the Great Recession, including unemployment, low-skill jobs and lesser wages.

"Higher education is one of the key factors driving upward mobility in the United States," said Diana Elliott, research manager of Pew's Economic Mobility Project. "Even under the pressures of the most recent economic downturn, a four-year college degree provided protection in the labor market for recent college graduates."

A college education both promotes upward mobility and prevents downward mobility, as shown by prior research from Pew's Economic Mobility Project. A college graduate has a three times greater chance of moving from the bottom to the top of the family income ladder than a person without a degree. Moreover, college graduates earn more and experience higher employment rates than their less-credentialed counterparts.
Read more about the Pew report >


"An overwhelming number — 90 percent — of the New Jersey adults who have attended college say that higher education is worth the cost. Residents link college opportunity directly to the ability to find jobs, develop careers, and to improve the quality of life for families," according to a poll conducted for the Higher Education Strategic Information and Governance (HESIG) project by the Stockton Polling Institute.

The Huffington Post reports that "For every dollar a student spends on community college, they can expect a cumulative $4.80 back in higher future wages", according to a recent report.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, every tax dollar that goes into a community college education, yields a cumulative return of $6.80 over the course of students' careers. In 2012 alone, the net total impact of community colleges on the U.S. economy was $809 billion in added income, equal to 5.4 percent of GDP. Over time, the U.S. economy will see even greater economic benefits, including $285.7 billion dollars in increased tax revenue as students earn higher wages and $19.2 billion in taxpayer savings as students require fewer safety net services, experience better health, and lower rates of crime.

Community colleges served nearly 12 million students in 2012, the year of data this report reviewed, representing 42 percent of the American collegiate population.

The earnings gap between young adults with and without bachelor's degrees has stretched to its widest level in nearly half a century according to a new analysis by the Pew Research Center. It is, according to them, "...a sign of the growing value of a college education despite rising tuition costs."

Findings include:

  • Young adults with just a high-school diploma earned 62 percent of the typical salary of college graduates, down from 81 percent in 1965, the earliest year for which comparable data are available.
  • As a whole, high-school graduates were more likely to live in poverty and be dissatisfied with their jobs, if not unemployed.
  • In contrast, roughly nine in 10 college graduates ages 25 to 32 said that their bachelor’s degree had paid off or will pay off in the future.
  • Even among the two-thirds of young adults who borrowed money for college, about 86 percent said their degrees have been, or will be, worth it.
Study Explores How Higher Education Pays Off for Older Americans at Different Ages

So reads the headline from a new research report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) which finds that higher education pays off for women and men for all ages 50 and older, including, "...for the oldest group studied, those 75 and older."

According to the release, "Those with higher levels of education–meaning those with at least some education beyond high school–work more at older ages and earn more per hour at older ages, relative to those with less education. Women, however, earn less at every age and education level than men, and often earn about the same as men who are at the educational level below them. The higher hourly wages that workers with higher education earn (relative to those with no education beyond high school) decline with age for both women and men.

This report, How Education Pays Off for Older Americans, by Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., and Jeff Hayes, Ph.D., examines differences in work and wages among women and men aged 50 and older at different levels of educational attainment, and includes information about the most common occupations for men and women by age. The authors analyzed the American Community Survey, a household survey conducted monthly by the Census Bureau, for the years 2005-2009. More than five million Americans aged 65 and older are employed and constitute four percent of the workforce." The report is available to download free from the IWPR.

The College Board has released its report, "Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society," which documents the ways in which both individuals and society as a whole benefit from increased levels of education. The report finds that benefits include increased earnings, higher employment levels, and greater tax revenues; better health and increased civic engagement. More specifically, it finds that Associate's Degree holders will make 27% more than those with only a high school diploma.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on two new studies seeking to answer the question of whether college is still worth the cost. In the article Scott Carlson looks at "Smart Shoppers: The End of the 'College for All' Debate?," from College Summit, a nonprofit group that promotes broader college access and "The Economics of B.A. Ambivalence: The Case of California Higher Education," written by Alan Benson, an assistant professor in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Benson's conclusion is that,
"College remains a good investment for both individuals and the state, but it is a 'steppingstone' to the middle class–not a ticket. As such, it deserves the scrutiny an individual would give to any risky investment."

This Huffington Post opinion piece from Patricia McGuire, President, Trinity Washington University, provides a common sense argument for the value of higher education, especially for, "...a distinctively ambitious population of young women with serious life challenges, as well as older women and men who are resuming long-deferred dreams to finish college degrees." Many are immigrants McQuire says, who "have overcome unfathomable barriers of language, money, culture, violence, illness, discrimination and sheer fear to make it to opening day. Others, like my student Renee (also not her real name), grew up on the mean streets of far southeast D.C., coping with parental incarceration, drug use, hunger and homelessness while helping to raise siblings even while finishing high school and gaining acceptance to college." McGuire decries the "elite commentariat" who say that maybe we need more job training, less Shakespeare and more socket wrenches." She also weighs in on the value and role of MOOC's.

Employers value a four-year college degree, many of them more than ever.

As if we needed any more proof of the value of higher education, we have the results of a recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace. It contains very interesting findings that reaffirm the value of the investment of time and money but they also found that respondents said they had trouble finding recent graduates qualified to fill positions at their company or organization. Nearly a third of those surveyed gave colleges just fair to poor marks for producing successful employees. Their major complaint? Bachelor degree-holders lacked "basic workplace proficiencies, like adaptability, communication skills, and the ability to solve complex problems."

"Woefully unprepared" is how David E. Boyes characterized the newly minted B.A.'s who apply to his Northern Virginia technology consulting company.

What gives? These days a bachelor's degree is practically a prerequisite for getting your résumé read—two-thirds of employers said they never waive degree requirements, or do so only for particularly outstanding candidates. But clearly the credential leaves employers wanting. While they use college as a sorting mechanism, to signal job candidates' discipline and drive, they think it is falling short in adequately preparing new hires.

The tension may lie partly in changes in the world of work: technological transformation and evolving expectations that employees be ready to handle everything straightaway. And perhaps managers are right to expect an easier time finding employees up to the task—after all, three times the proportion of Americans have bachelor's degrees now as did a generation or two ago. Read more...

This opinion piece from the Hechinger Report by Donald Hall, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh University, take a interesting look the benefits of higher education not just from the standpoint of cost or job prospects, but rather "value," a data point that he contends colleges and universities should track, report and promote. Commenting on such proof points he says, "It's certainly about more than price and return-on-investment. These are valuable data points, clearly. But the price of a house doesn't represent the value of your home. A home is what you make of it, as is higher education. It's a framework for your life, where memories are created, lifelong friends are met and you grow into your own person. When we discuss the state of higher education with my colleagues at other schools, or our students, faculty and staff, what we discuss more than salary data is value."

A recent story in The New York Times reports that federal data is showing that the number of Americans graduating from college has surged, "sending the share with a college degree to a new high."

According to reporter Catherine Rampell, "Last year, 33.5 percent of Americans ages 25 to 29 had at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 24.7 percent in 1995, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1975, the share was 21.9 percent. The number of two-year college degrees, master's degrees and doctorates has also risen recently."

Later in the article she notes that, despite controversy the costs and challenges of pursuing a higher education degree, "Many economists point out that college graduates have fared much better than their less-educated peers and argue that rising educational levels will help the economy in the long run. Since the recession began in December 2007, the number of Americans with bachelor's degrees who have jobs has risen by 9 percent, while employment has fallen for everyone else.

Also noted in the article is the fact that the unemployment rate for graduates of four-year colleges between the ages of 25 and 34 was 3.3 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For high school graduates in the same age group who had not attended college, it was 11.8 percent.

A new study from The Hamilton Project, a Washington, DC-based think tank reports that "…the investment in even a partial college education is still worth it, amounting to average earnings of $100,000 more over a lifetime than for those who merely finish high school."

Here's another story on the fact that it pays to earn a college degree. However, you have to get the right degree. This feature from National Public Radio features Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce. He's discussing their latest study "Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings."

See all news on higher education >