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What is it good for? 

A bachelor's degree doesn't guarantee earnings, but the statistics are good

For many incoming freshmen, thoughts of someday post-graduation celebrations are capped with visions of an easy transition from flip-flops and poverty to wingtips and salaries.

But with the ever-increasing cost of tuition, the potential of tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and the uncertainty of the job market after graduation particularly for those planning to stay in the county many young people are beginning to question the real financial value of a college degree as opposed to working full-time straight out of high school or living off of unemployment checks and renting out an inexpensive storage unit near the beach.

Late-night infomercials are full of stories of dropouts-turned-millionaires and, let's be honest, there are plenty of rich folks out there who never obtained a degree but the statistics still factor a college diploma into a winning strategy.

To help determine the real value of a college education, it's important to understand the rates of return of the financial investment. There's a lot of information out there that supports the theory that a degree is worth all of the burdens associated with it even though that may mean burying your face in books for four years and taking out jaw-dropping loans for financial support.

"It's the minimal essential requirement to move into professional positions," Martin Shibata, Cal Poly's career services director, said about the power of obtaining a bachelor's degree. "There's a lot of data that compares a college graduate's income versus a high school graduate's income, and it is significant."

A recent study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics supports Shibata's views on the subject.

According to the study, a U.S. college graduate made thousands more per year than a high school graduate did in 2006.

The statistics revealed that a bachelor's degree holder brought home a median salary of $50,024, while a high-school graduate made $30,940 in the same time frame.

Cal Poly conducted a similar survey of its own, which revealed that 2006 Mustang graduates made a median salary of $48,000 a year.

The statistics may be a little skewed, because only half of the 4,465 students who received a bachelor's degree from Cal Poly in 2006 responded to the survey.

So what is the other half doing? We may not know, but the reality is that college graduates who step straight out of their graduation gown and directly into their dream job are the lucky ones. In fact, many recent graduates may find themselves taking lower-level jobs, working jobs that aren't related to their area of study, traveling, and even gasp returning to their parents' home.

Shortly after graduating from Cal Poly in 2007 and receiving a degree in agricultural science, Ashley Rains moved back to her hometown of Bakersfield.

"After graduation, I worked around SLO for a month or so in a bar," Rains said. "But I wasn't making enough money and the job market in SLO is not the best for a recent graduate."

In an effort to help save money and eventually make the big bucks, Rains is now living rent free at her parents' back house while studying for her real estate license and pursuing a master's degree before taking off to Lake Tahoe for the winter season.

Cal Poly's Shibata noted that, just like in Rains' case, there's a direct correlation between graduate studies and unemployment rates.

"When the market is good, a bachelor's degree is sufficient," Shibata said. "When the market gets tighter, more students tend to consider graduate school to put them in a better position."

Another Cal Poly graduate currently seeking graduate admission to increase his earning potential is Chris Cox, who graduated in 2006 with a degree in nutrition.

"College is like the second high school now," he said. "Everyone goes. It's just something you do."

Since 2001, the college enrollment rate for recent high school graduates has been trending upward. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly two-thirds of high school graduates from the class of 2006 were enrolled in colleges or universities in October of that same year.

The National Center for Educational Statistics revealed that college enrollment hit a record level of 17.5 million in fall 2005 and expects that number to increase by an additional 13 percent between 2006 and 2015.

The center also noted that during the 2005-06 school year, more than 1,456,000 bachelor's degrees and 584,000 master's degrees were issued in the United States.

Though more people have college degrees than ever before and the job market is arguably more competitive the college experience offers value beyond the diploma for some.

"College was one of the best times of my life," Rains said. "I made a lot of close friends and learned a lot, not just from studies but about myself and human interaction. That is priceless."

Staff Writer Kai Beech can be reached at kbeech@newtimesslo.com.

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