It’s a fairly long paper, but it reviews the current state of knowledge about the payoff to college education (abstract):
Making College Worth It: A Review of Research on the Returns to Higher Education
Philip Oreopoulos, Uros Petronijevic
Recent stories of soaring student debt levels and under-placed college graduates have caused some to question whether a college education is still a sound investment. In this paper, we review the literature on the returns to higher education in an attempt to determine who benefits from college. Despite the tremendous heterogeneity across potential college students, we conclude that the investment appears to payoff for both the average and marginal student. During the past three decades in particular, the earnings premium associated with a college education has risen substantially. Beyond the pecuniary benefits of higher education, we suggest that there also may exist non-pecuniary benefits. Given these findings, it is perhaps surprising that among recent cohorts college completion rates have stagnated. We discuss potential explanations for this trend and conclude by succinctly interpreting the evidence on how to make the most out of college.
There’s a little something here for everyone: for current and prospective university students, there’s a discussion about how to weigh the decision to go to college; which major to pursue (if maximising lifetime earnings is your goal); and the returns to education (double-digit increases for every year completed). There’s stuff for policy-makers and educators as well, e.g. how the “framing” of student financial aid matters as much as its value in terms of encouraging enrolment, to why student debt shouldn’t matter, to the changes in the labour market that have increased the value of a college education.
All in all, a useful overall survey and summary for anyone curious about this particular topic.
Oreopoulos, Philip, and Uros Petronijevic, "Making College Worth It: A Review of Research on the Returns to Higher Education" NBER Working Paper No. 19053, May 2013