Higher education provides extensive benefits to students, including higher wages, better health, and a lower likelihood of requiring disability payments (Oreopoulos and Petronijevic 2013). A population that is more highly educated also confers wide-ranging benefits to the economy, such as lower rates of unemployment (Greenstone and Looney 2011) and higher wages even for workers without college degrees (Moretti 2004).
A postsecondary degree can also serve as a buffer against unemployment during economic downturns. Those with postsecondary degrees saw more steady employment through the Great Recession (Autor 2014), and the vast majority of net jobs created during the economic recovery went to college-educated workers (Carnevale, Jayasundera, and Gulish 2016).
In recognition of the personal and social benefits of higher education, the federal government provides incentives to young people to attain a higher education credential, as well as policies that encourage additional training, reskilling, on-the-job professional development, or credentialing after a spell in the labor market. A large and growing number of Americans participate in these programs. In the fall of 2015, about 20 million students were enrolled in degree-granting institutions of higher education, double the 8.5 million enrolled in the fall of 1970 (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] 2015, 2016).