Higher education remains a smart financial choice for most people, especially those who attend selective colleges and get degrees in financially promising fields, such as science and technology, according to the analysis by the Brookings Center on Children and Families.
But college may not pay off for students pursuing majors in low-paying fields, such as the arts, or going to lower-tier schools. That's hammered home for students with large student loans, and especially true for those who take on debt but drop out of school and never get a degree, the study found.
One of the study's more startling statistics is that 170 of the 853 schools studied -- or an astounding 1 in 5 colleges -- had a negative return on investment.
"By telling all young people that they should go to college no matter what, we are actually doing them a disservice," Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill write in "Should Everyone Go to College?"
The study seems likely to intensify the heated debate over the financial merits of college, especially when heavy student loans are involved.
Many studies lately have reinforced the notion that college is a good financial bet and, indeed, the age-old wisdom holds for top schools.
Students attending the "most selective" colleges have a "lifetime earnings premium" exceeding $620,000, the study says. The premium for those at "minimally selective" schools is only one-third as much.
What you study and the career you go into also matter. Sometimes, the study found, graduates of unimpressive schools, or those who majored in low-paying fields, earned less than people with only a high school education.
The lifetime earnings of an education or arts major working in the services sector are lower than that of a high school graduate, the study points out.
A surprising 14 percent of high-school graduates earn at least as much as people with bachelor's degrees, and 17 percent of those with bachelor's degrees outearn compatriots with professional degrees, the authors found.