Is college worth it for everyone?

In yesterday's New York Times, David Leonhardt opined that we ought to send as many young adults to college as possible. His economic arguments ran as follows:

- The income delta between college grads and non-college grads has increased from 40% to over 80% in the last three decades.
- If one calculates a return on investment for a college education, it is 15%, higher than stocks, and certainly higher than current real-estate.

Unfortunately, he completely glosses over the problem of cost. He writes:

"First, many colleges are not very expensive, once financial aid is taken into account. Average net tuition and fees at public four-year colleges this past year were only about $2,000 (though Congress may soon cut federal financial aid)."

As if the eminent cutting of federal financial aid can be reduced to a parenthetical! The reality is that college prices have increased over 130% since 1988 while median family incomes have remained stagnant. This situation makes college possible only through the amassing of large amounts of student debt. Indeed, for the first time in this country, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt. Taking on this kind of debt in this lackluster economy is problematic. Furthermore unlike mortgages, student loan debt does not go away with bankruptcy, loading some thinkers to forecast education as the next bubble.

Leonhardt also unhelpfully compares the arguments against universal college education to the arguments against universal high school education from over half a century ago. This would be fine if we were in the position to make four years of university education part of public education. However, calling for all families to take on this debt seems irresponsible and elitist.