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OUR OPINION: Is college still worth it? Pew research says yes

Human beings are rational actors, by and large. So, if the question is why are 15,000-plus students enrolled at UND, then the answer likely is that the students believe getting a college education will be in their own self-interest.

Now, here’s news:

The students are right.

“On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment — from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time — young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education,” a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data reported earlier this month.

Furthermore, “when today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.”

This finding should be reassuring not only to students and their parents but also to taxpayers in North Dakota and Minnesota alike.

That’s because higher education in both states commands significant tax dollars; and for years, the wisdom of that spending has been questioned.

Lots of those questions remain, especially about the reported growth of the schools’ administrative ranks, the shrinking number of full-time faculty positions and the fact that so many students now graduate with significant debt.

But crucially, the Pew report declares that the fundamental equation which has made college such a popular option since World War II still balances for today’s young people.

“The economic analysis finds that Millennial college graduates ages 25 to 32 who are working full time earn more annually — about $17,500 more — than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma,” Pew reported.

“The pay gap was significantly smaller in previous generations.”

Moreover, “college-educated Millennials also are more likely to be employed full time than their less-educated counterparts and significantly less likely to be unemployed (3.8 percent vs. 12.2 percent).”

It’s absolutely true that student loans matter. Students should do everything they can to try to graduate with little or no debt.

It’s also true that each student’s course of study matters, because in some fields, it’s a whole lot easier to find work.

But do the benefits of a college education outweigh these costs?

“Among Millennials ages 25 to 32, the answer is clearly yes,” the Pew report concluded.

“About nine-in-10 with at least a bachelor’s degree say college has already paid off (72 percent) or will pay off in the future (17 percent).

“Even among the two-thirds of college-educated Millennials who borrowed money to pay for their schooling, about nine-in-10 (86 percent) say their degrees have been worth it or expect that they will be in the future.”

College is not for everyone, and America offers smart options for career-minded young people who aren’t interested in a four-year degree. Enlisting in the military is one; solid community-college training is another.

But for those who are interested in UND and similar schools, it helps to know that the choice can be a good one. The Pew research is just the latest that confirms this finding.

As the Los Angeles Times summarized, the report is “strong evidence that a four-year degree pays off — and in some ways that may be even more so for the current generation.”