This is from Frank Levy at MIT:
I am attaching a paper co-authored with two former students that uses California higher ed data to make stylized calculations of the return and risk of pursuing a BA. The paper makes two main points.
Most studies of the rate of return to college use a best-case scenario in which students earn a degree with certainty in four years. More realistic calculations that account for students who take more than four years and students who drop out without a degree, etc. result in an average rate of return that is lower than it was in 2000 but still exceeds the interest rate on unsubsidized Stafford student loans – i.e. college remains a good investment by the normal criteria.
Most studies present an average rate of return without considering the investment’s risk. Over the last decade, rising tuition and deteriorating earnings for new college graduates (particularly at the bottom of the distribution) have increased the risk of pursuing a BA – e.g. the risk that a graduate at age 30 will have student loan payments that exceed 15% of their income. This growing risk is one explanation for increased skepticism about the value of a college degree despite the apparently high rate of return. It also underlines the importance of students becoming aware of the government’s income contingent loan repayment plans.