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When the College Board released a report on higher education’s payoff in 2010, some critics questioned whether the organization was overstating the benefits that accrue to individuals and society from going to college. Since that time, those critics have become part of a much larger chorus, with pundits and politicians alike asking whether too many people are going to college. So, for the latest installment of its report, “Education Pays,” the College Board issued a second report specifically to explain its analysis. 

As a supplement to the 2013 Education Pays report -- which finds that the median earnings of bachelor's-degree recipients during a 40-year full-time working life are 65 percent higher than those of high school graduates -- the College Board addresses the “conflicting statements and views” in public discussions of higher education.

The College Board chastises those who question the value of higher education by perpetuating anecdotal stories about student debt and unemployment. The board concludes that while higher education may not be a boon for all, “on average and for most students, college is an excellent financial investment.”

The Education Pays report itself finds that median earnings for bachelor’s degree holders working full-time in 2011 were $21,000 more than the median earnings of high school graduates, according to the report. The median earnings for those with some college experience, but no college degree, are $5,000 more than for high school graduates.

The advantage of a college degree declined slightly between 2008 and 2011. The gap between the median earnings of male high school graduates ages 25 to 34 and their peers with a bachelor’s degree or higher declined from 74 percent in 2008 to 69 percent in 2011. For women of the same age, the gap between the median earnings of high school graduates and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher declined from 79 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in 2011.

The median four-year-college graduate who enrolls at age 18 and graduates in four years will earn enough by age 36 to compensate for tuition costs and being out of the work force for four years, according to the report. But the financial benefits that accrue from higher education may take time to accumulate, especially if a student graduates into a weak economy.

The College Board report detailed several other benefits of higher education not related to salary. College-educated workers are more likely to receive health insurance and pension benefits, and they report higher levels of job satisfaction. College graduates are more likely to vote and volunteer and less likely to smoke or be obese. College graduates generate increased tax revenue for federal, state and local governments, which spend less on income support programs for college graduates.

But by looking at the payoff for a typical student, the College Board renders its data meaningless to individual college students, said Mark Schneider, a vice president and institute fellow at American Institutes for Research.

If the median is a snapshot of students at all institutions and in all degree programs with vastly different backgrounds, a data report like the College Board’s draws a “relentlessly optimistic picture of the return on high education, based on averages,” said Schneider, who has conducted a report on the variance of earnings for college graduates.

For many students, however, the College Board’s report reflects their realities, say officials at the Education Trust, which supports the educational success of low-income and minority students. Enrollment rates have increased over recent decades across all income levels and ethnicities, said Joe Yeado, higher education research and policy analyst there.

The rate of enrollment for high school graduates from the lowest family-income levels increased from 50 percent in 2002 to 52 percent in 2012. The enrollment rate for those from families in the highest-income level increased from 78 percent in 2002 to 82 percent in 2012.

In 2011, 70 percent of white high school graduates, 66 percent of black high school graduates and 62 percent of Hispanic high school graduates enrolled in college within a year after finishing high school. 

As access to college rises, researchers are looking at data on whether students are accessing appropriate-level higher education. The College Board report found that among high school graduates eligible for somewhat selective colleges, 42 percent of lower-socioeconomic status undermatched, meaning they enrolled in institutions less selective than the most selective college to which they were about 90 percent likely to be admitted.

"We want students to be choosing options that help them succeed and we would sure like to see the gap in graduation rates narrow and close,” Yeado said.

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