The average cost of attending a four-year private university is now nearly $42,500 per year—triple the price tag in 1990 and the equivalent, after taxes are taken out, of almost a year's income for a median household today.
Even state schools now cost students nearly $19,000 per year on average, a more than 100 percent increase over the last 25 years.
While wages have stagnated, college tuition has continued to climb, growing at a faster rate than both inflation and median income levels. That's put college increasingly out of reach for many families, who have turned to personal savings and student loans to make up the difference, sending student debt levels to a record $1.2 trillion last year—and putting their own retirement savings in jeopardy.
Given those numbers, it's easy to wonder: Is a college degree worth it anymore?
On that question, the consensus is still a resounding yes. New York Fed researchers estimate college graduates earn about $1 million more over their lifetime than those without a degree. And the so-called college wage "premium" -- the difference in average earnings between college graduates and those with just a high school diploma -- has averaged about 56 percent over the last three decades.
But dig deeper into the data and it becomes clear that the value of a degree is eroding—while the premium has remained stable, the cost to attain a degree has risen and earnings for college graduates and non-graduates alike have fallen. And while there's plenty of evidence that a higher education provides a gateway to higher-paying jobs, the return on a college degree can vary widely, depending on a range of factors.