There are three related shifts causing economists to re-examine the returns of college. First, the wages of college graduates have remained mostly flat this century, after inflation. Second, the cost of attending college has soared. Third, even with higher salaries, significant numbers of college graduates in recent years are failing to build the kind of wealth that previous generations did.

Created with Highcharts 6.0.4Wage PremiumCollege graduates still earn more thannongraduates, but their wages have beenmostly flat since 2001.College graduates still earn more than nongraduates, but their wages have been mostly flat since 2001.Sources: New York Federal Reserve, using Censusand Labor Department dataSources: New York Federal Reserve, using Census and Labor Department dataNote: Adjusted for inflation.

The question of higher education’s value has gained urgency because so many more Americans are going to college than before, and because they are paying far more to do so. The share of Americans between ages 25 and 29 with a bachelor’s degree rose to 37% last year from 29% in 2000, Education Department data show.

College and graduate-school tuition has risen at triple the rate of inflation this century, according to Labor Department data. Students who borrowed now leave college with more than $30,000 in debt, on average, and a small but growing number is carrying $50,000 and beyond, according to a report last year by the Brookings Institution.

College graduates still earn far more than those who never got an education beyond high school. Americans with a bachelor’s degree—but not a graduate degree—earned an average $77,239, nearly $32,000 more than the average earnings of workers with only a high-school diploma, according to the New York Federal Reserve.  […]