Depressed for Life

The title of this post comes from a Paul Krugman column published in The New York Times this past Sunday (“Wasting Our Minds“). A couple of points caught my attention:

You’ve probably heard lots about how workers with college degrees are faring better in this slump than those with only a high school education, which is true. But the story is far less encouraging if you focus not on middle-aged Americans with degrees but on recent graduates. (my emphasis) Unemployment among recent graduates has soared; so has part-time work, presumably reflecting the inability of graduates to find full-time jobs. Perhaps most telling, earnings have plunged even among those graduates working full time — a sign that many have been forced to take jobs that make no use of their education.

College graduates, then, are taking it on the chin thanks to the weak economy. And research tells us that the price isn’t temporary: students who graduate into a bad economy never recover the lost ground. Instead, their earnings are depressed for life. (my emphasis)

It worries me that the college premium argument for recent college graduates seems to  rest on ever-shakier ground. Do the latest projections related to lifetime earnings of college graduates adequately reflect the “the lost ground” research that Krugman notes above? Or the anemic wage growth we’ve experienced over the last decade? Or the possibility that the economy might tank again in the near future?

There’s no guarantee that the economic policies being implemented today—or in the future—won’t significantly degrade the economic value of an education. No one can really know with certainty what your earning power over the course of the next 30 years will be.

Successful adult education students who transition to college surely have better economic prospects than they did before they entered adult education, but are those prospects really good enough? For these adults, in particular, what other policies are needed in order to increase the likelihood that the pursuit of education produces the economic payoff we are hoping for?