Cost of college has risen 169% since 1980 – but salaries lag far behind, study finds

National / World

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(NEXSTAR) – Young people have it harder than ever when it comes to paying for college and finding a good first job, according to a recent report from Georgetown University.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce is calling for a “paradigm shift” when it comes to educating and preparing children to join the workforce.

Since 1980, the cost of college has soared 169% while the average salary among young adults rose only 20%, according to the report titled “If Not Now, When? The Urgent Need for an All-One-System Approach to Youth Policy.”

“We haven’t connected the dots from early childhood, through K–12 and postsecondary education, to careers,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, lead author and CEW director. “We need an all-one-system approach that facilitates smooth transitions on the pathway from youth dependence to adult independence.” 

Thanks in part to the three recessions since the turn of the millennium, employment among the 16-21 age group is now 14 percentage points lower than it was in 2000, the report found. Meantime, salaries among people with a bachelor’s degree or higher have been rising.

“It used to be much easier for young adults to get the necessary education and work experience to land a career-track job by their early-to-mid-20s,” the report states. “It now takes many young people until their 30s to get the postsecondary education or training as well as the work experience necessary to latch onto a good job and launch a career. And many youth, especially the least advantaged youth, don’t attain a good job at all.”

Being smart and driven is no guarantee of success in the U.S., where the researchers say children face numerous junctures along their educational and job training paths where they could fall through the cracks.

“The evidence of our failure to help all youth make the long journey from early childhood to adult economic independence is plain. In the trajectory from kindergarten to a good job, the most talented disadvantaged youth do not fare nearly as well as the least talented advantaged youth,” according to the report. “It is far better to be born rich and white than smart and poor in America.”

Georgetown researchers found in 2019 that there was a disconnect when it came to school achievement and expected outcomes later in life.

“When we track student test scores beginning in kindergarten, we find that children from families in the top quartile of family socioeconomic status (SES) who have low test scores have a 71% chance of being in the top half of socioeconomic status by their late 20s,” according to the 2021 report. “However, children from families in the bottom SES quartile but with top test scores have only a 31% chance of being in the top half of SES by their late 20s, and the numbers are even worse for talented children from low-income racial and ethnic minority households.”

To combat the widening gap between the cost of college and the median salary for young adults, Georgetown researchers suggest an “all-one-system” approach that starts at an early age. Changes would include universal preschool, career exploration as part of their education, more robust counseling services and an expansion of access to advanced degrees.

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