MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Student loan debt tops a trillion dollars, and when a four-year college degree can cost as much as a house, many young Americans and their parents are asking: Is college worth it? The Pew Research Center is out today with one answer. Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The study focuses on young adults and looks at some key measures like income and unemployment. Pew's Paul Taylor says it's pretty much case closed.
PAUL TAYLOR: In a modern knowledge-based based economy, the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college.
LUDDEN: Here are the numbers. Those with a college degree now make $17,500 more a year on average than those without, a wage gap that has doubled in recent decades. Unemployment? Those with no degree are four times more likely to be out of a job. Pew also surveyed young adults. Taylor says you can imagine a college-educated barista struggling with loan payments having second thoughts.
TAYLOR: But you ask them, was it worth it? And boy, even those with debt, eight out of 10 say absolutely, either it's already worth it or it will be worth it.
DAKOTA GOFORTH: In this generation, you have to go to college. Like, it isn't even an option.
LUDDEN: Nineteen-year-old Dakota Goforth(ph) is a freshman at the University of the District of Columbia. At first, he did not plan on college. After all, neither of his parents went and they make a fine living, his dad in special education, mom is an accountant. But Goforth says his high school was all over the disparity that the Pew report chronicles.
GOFORTH: And they would show you like statistics of people who didn't go to college the and people who did. And once I saw the numbers, I'm like, yeah, I'm going.
LUDDEN: But Pew also finds it's not just going that matters. It's what you study. On his way to morning class, 29-year-old Michael Benten(ph) says he already has a master's degree, but like nearly a third of those Pew surveyed, he regrets his major.
MICHAEL BENTEN: Political science and international relations and international development.
LUDDEN: So not a lot of job opportunity there?
BENTEN: No. Very little.
LUDDEN: So Benten is now at UDC for a second bachelor's. He's taking out loans and dipping into savings to major in computer science.
BENTEN: I want be in a field where it's growing and I know what the future looks like and I think the future's bright.
LUDDEN: Compared to those without a degree, grads today are much better off. But compared to their parents, well, a third of millennials have college degrees, the most educated generation ever. And yet Pew's Paul Taylor says...
TAYLOR: They're in effect holding their own. They're flat. I mean there's no great sense of forward progress among this group.
LUDDEN: Pew finds the wage gap is widening at the lower end. Prospects for those with just a high school diploma have been collapsing since the late '70s.
ARNIE KALLEBERG: The blue collar jobs of yesteryear, which built the American middle class, those jobs have simply disappeared.
LUDDEN: Arnie Kalleberg is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the author of "Good Jobs, Bad Jobs."
KALLEBERG: The kinds of jobs that are being created are relatively low wage, low skilled jobs such as fast food and big box stores, and so for most of Americans we've seen a stagnation in wages and a decline in purchasing powers.
LUDDEN: So there's more incentive than ever to go to college. Still, Kalleberg cautions, a degree alone does not guarantee a well-paying job, and of course you have to be able to pay for it. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.