56% of Americans question the worth of a college degree.

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Americans are increasingly skeptical of the value of a post-secondary education at a time when college attendance costs are soaring. In some cases, those doubts may be justified, according to a new analysis of earnings data from almost 4,000 colleges and other higher education programs.

A decade after enrolling, attendees of 1 in 4 higher education programs are earning less than the median annual income of $32,000 for high school graduates, according to The HEA Group, which analyzed data from the Department of Education to track the earnings outcomes of about five million students.

About 8% of institutions show their students’ median income a decade after enrolling is less than $22,000 a year, or about 150% of the federal poverty line — low enough to qualify for some public assistance programs, The HEA Group found.

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To be sure, the majority of colleges are producing graduates who outearn people with only high school degrees, and economic research points to a well-documented wage premium for college grads that only grows over time. But the findings may help explain the growing pessimism among Americans about whether a college degree justifies taking on student debt, which currently tops $37,000 per borrower.

“The main reason why students go to college is for greater employability and for a financially secure future,” Michael Itzkowitz, the former director of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard and the founder of The HEA Group, told CBS MoneyWatch.

He added, “As you think about the student debt problem, this raises questions. Are colleges providing enough of a value to allow students to earn a decent living and pay down their student loans after they attend?”

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About 56% of Americans now believe that earning a four-year college degree isn’t worth the cost, compared with 40% a decade ago, according to a poll last year from the Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago.




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