For as long as college students have queued up inside campus stores to buy expensive textbooks — and years later, wrestled with debt from ever-rising tuition — a debate has raged:

Is a four-year college degree really worth it?

A new Georgetown University study suggests, yes, it is — but it's complicated.

The university's Center on Education and Workforce employed a new metric to a survey 4,500 institutions to get at that question. It also calculated the share of students at an institution whose earnings, 10 years after enrollment, are higher than those of workers with a high school diploma. It tracked earnings 40 years after leaving campus as well.

The numbers indicate that college graduates tend to do better as a whole, but not always — at least in the early years after graduation.

An average of 60% of college students across institutions earn more than a high school graduate after 10 years. However, at almost 30% of the campuses, more than half of students 10 years after enrollment earned less than a high school graduate.

Existing research indicates that depressed average earnings early on may be linked to "low college graduation rates and disparities in earnings by gender and by race and ethnicity," according to the center.

"College typically pays off, but the return on investment varies by credential, program of study, and institution," the center's director, Anthony Carnevale, said in a statement. "It's important to inform people about the risk of taking out loans but not graduating, which could leave them without the increased earnings that would help them repay those loans."

The center's study and ranking, released last week, includes a searchable web tool that enables users to view and sort by state, type of institution and other factors, or to simply plug in their school's name. It offers earnings information over time suggesting the return on a student's investment in that school.

Private institutions that award mainly bachelor's degrees had the highest return on investment 40 years after enrollment, just as those schools fared in previous numbers from College Scorecard, a federal data source that enables consumers to compare higher education institutions in areas from price to student outcomes.

The Georgetown survey's authors pointed to 10 colleges that offered students the best long-term return on investment, a group of private nonprofit institutions — among them Charles R Drew University of Medicine and Science, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis.

Ranked by net earning amounts over time including debt, the list includes:

— University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis ($2.68 million)

— Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences ($2.61 million)

— Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences ($2.51 million)

— California Institute of Technology ($2.49 million)

— Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($2.49 million)

— Charles R Drew University of Medicine and Science ($2.39 million)

— Harvey Mudd College ($2.37 million)

— Bentley University ($2.25 million)

— Babson College ($2.24 million)

— University of Pennsylvania ($2.21 million)

But colleges that predominantly offer certificates or associate's degrees offered students the highest return on investment 10 years after leaving campus. Twenty-five of the 30 institutions with the best short-term net economic gains primarily grant certificates or associate's degrees, officials said in a summary of the findings.

"Because these programs require fewer credits to complete, they generally leave students with less debt and allow them to enter the workforce sooner," a statement from the center said. "In the long run, however, the returns of these programs fall behind those of bachelor's degree-granting institutions because students' long-term earnings are lower."

Public colleges, where tuition is lower and students accumulate less debt, can lead to better returns than private colleges at the 10-year horizon, officials said. Likewise, by a 40-year horizon, four-year public institutions offered higher returns ($1.03 million) versus private nonprofit institutions ($984,000).

Public institutions primarily granting associate's degrees have a long-term return of $856,000 while the return at private nonprofit institutions at the same degree level is $780,000.

These findings hold true for many schools, but there are notable exceptions, according to center staff. In some cases, public and private for-profit institutions offer returns of more than $1 million at the 40-year horizon, exceeding the median 40-year returns of private institutions.

They cited Southern Westchester BOCES-Practical Nursing Program, with 40-year returns of about $1.6 million, and the Ocean Corporation, a private for-profit institution, with 40-year returns of about $1.5 million.

Mushtaq Gunja, an official with the Washington D.C.-based American Council on Education, an umbrella group for higher education, said the survey's numbers seem to speak to the value of degree-pursuit, but also the fact circumstances vary by individual.

"Going to college and getting a four-year degree is almost always a good thing. Is that true for every single person in the country? I think the data is showing us the answer is, no," said Mr. Gunja, ACE senior vice president and Chief of Staff, who is moving over to be the Executive Director of the Carnegie Classifications System.

He and others said a takeaway is the need for good counseling and advice for students before they commit to campus decisions.

"We need a comprehensive career counseling system to help students and their families use this information to make decisions about college," said Martin Van Der Werf, CEW director of editorial and education policy.


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