Are College Students Being Overly Optimistic?

black piggy bank with dollar...
black piggy bank with dollar...

Despite everything that has happened in the economy, college still holds a strong attraction for most of today's young adults. At the turn of the century, when things seemed much rosier, enrollment between 1990 and 2000 in institutions that granted degrees increased by 11 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A more surprising fact is that right in the middle of our economic turmoil enrollment increased another 37 percent between 2000 and 2010, with much of this growth coming from full-time students.

More than 30 million of these students are in the 18- to 24-year-old age group, while enrollment in the over-25 age group is also increasing substantially. As of 2012, there were almost 17.5 million students attending either public or private two- and four-year institutions. This can be put in a historical context by referencing the Center's "120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait."

There could be many possible reasons for this continued interest in education. Perhaps students have seen the value of higher learning in the quality of life their parents were able to afford due to their own educations. In today's tighter job market, it might be possible that more potential employers are demanding a college education just to land an entry-level job. A more negative interpretation might be that these students are just using college as a delaying tactic while they wait on the sidelines for the post-graduate job market to improve.

Is College Still a Good Investment?

So are these eager young minds being overly optimistic that there will be great jobs waiting for them upon their graduation, or is the more pessimistic interpretation correct? In January USA Today reported the results of a Pew Center study, which found that in general those students holding a bachelor's degree are coming out ahead of their peers without degrees, earning almost $20,000 per year more. Even though all groups might have seen some evidence of wage decreases during the recession, the jobless rate did drop less for those with a degree.

The findings concluded that a college degree still increased the opportunity for economic security, even during this most recent economic downturn. Supporting that conclusion in a fascinating study from Bloomberg Businessweek, which analyzed and ranked the schools in each state that provided the best return on investment based on the cost of obtaining a degree and the amount of money earned after graduation. Some of the results can be surprising while others show that real bargains are still available in college education.

So it doesn't appear that students are being overly optimistic in continuing to seek out a college education. The benefits seem to far outweigh any outward economic pressures. Good students should not be prevented from attending college due to financial considerations. Take the time to study the available options and find a college that can meet your individual economic situation without having to take on too much student loan debt.

Even some of the most expensive colleges can be more in reach with a good financial aid package. A professional college financial adviser can take the time to help parents and students sort through the costs of various colleges and weigh the benefits of various incentives. The advisor can also help make sure that the student receives all of the federal, state and private aid available to help keep costs in line. Today's students are smart to invest in a college program, and they'll be even smarter when they graduate!