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Total student loan debt has soared to about $1 trillion nationwide and increasingly the question of attending college is being framed in terms someone with an MBA would use:

Is the rate of return on a college education worth it?

"Right now, no," said Bianca Calderon, 23, a Fortuna native who graduated from Sonoma State University last week with a degree in criminal justice.

"I'm looking for a job and it's really, really hard. Especially in my field," said Calderon, who is her family's first college graduate and now owes about $20,000 in student loans.

She considered dropping out during her junior year because of the growing debt, but decided she was already too far along to quit, and also that she couldn't disappoint her family and professors. Now, she said, she's considering getting a master's in public administration to improve her job prospects.

For years, research has shown a direct link between education and income: the more education you have, the more money you make.

But the value of a college education is being questioned by, among others, President Ronald Reagan's education secretary, William Bennett, who thrust the issue into the national debate last month in his new book, titled "Is College Worth It?"

His answer: Not every college and not for everyone.

That's true especially, Bennett says, given the debt graduates can leave with — an average of $25,250 nationally — and the large number of American students who do not finish college.

"The return on investment is positive, we think, for about 150 colleges and universities, but there are about 3,000 colleges and universities," Bennett said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance.

'Not worth it'

Annie Nagel of Rohnert Park is working toward a veterinary technician's certificate at Santa Rosa Junior College, often used as a stepping stone to a four-year college. She also is studying anthropology, which Bennett says is an example of a major that leaves graduates without a clear path to a career.

Tuition hikes and budget cuts have led to crowded classes and made it at times impossible to get into classes she needs to graduate. So the 21-year-old has concluded: "College is not worth it."

She doubts she will go to a four-year college, unless it specializes in canine studies, said Nagel, who works part time at a Santa Rosa dog kennel.

"I love learning and I think education is great, but I think the education system is not very great," she said. "It's worth it to me because my parents pay for it. If I had to pay for it, it wouldn't be."

She and her brother, who earned a business degree from Chapman University, had little choice about whether to go.

"It wasn't an option not to go to college. It was made very clear from the day they were born that they were both going," said their mother, Molly Nagel, a special education teacher for Petaluma City Schools.

"College is the best investment anyone can make," Molly Nagel said, "in your mind and your job opportunities and in the functioning of the world."

Not always best path

But it may not always be the best path, according to a May report by the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank.

Fewer than 60 percent of students who enter four-year schools finish within six years, according to the report by economist Isabel Sawhill and researcher Stephanie Owen.

As well, they note, certain college degrees do not always guarantee higher lifetime earnings — which is often cited as a chief reason to get a college degree.

"By telling all young people that they should go to college no matter what, we are actually doing some of them a disservice," they write.

In an interview this week, Sawhill noted that about 70 percent of community college students do not finish within six years. The weightiest decision for prospective college students, she said, is whether they should go to college, "given one's prospects of graduating."

"I think there are some questions we need to debate more," she said. "We're spending a lot of money on this, and it's not at all clear what we're getting for it."

Question too limited

But many say the question that Bennett, Sawhill and others are posing is far too limited.

"Looking only at lifetime earnings potential really diminishes the educational experience and what people should expect out of life in general," said William Silver, dean of SSU's School of Business and Economics.

"If you go to a university that exposes you to opportunity in multiple ways, it may not be your income potential that defines your return on investment," he said. "How's your life? Are you happy? What do you do in your community?"

As it happens, when it comes to income, SSU measures well. It has a 30-year net return on investment of 6.6 percent, according to a report (which Sawhill's study also drew upon) by Payscale, an online salary information firm that ranked 1,511 public and private colleges based on surveys of graduates.

Stanford University, by comparison, has a 6.9 percent return on investment, the Payscale report said.

Return on investment, or ROI, calculates the amount of additional money a college graduate will earn over a 30-year period, minus the costs of attending college.

That number is then converted to a percentage that can be compared to what the graduate would have earned by investing the money.

The report shows "there is no 'one size fits all' answer," said Payscale lead economist Katie Bardaro. "It's truly an individual choice of whether or not college is the right path for a student or prospective student to achieve their intended career goals."

But some experts say the data used by those questioning the economic value of college are weak or incomplete.

"I think the ROI analysis is so far off that even low-paying B.A. majors are still a reasonable deal financially," said Steven Rose, senior economist at the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workplace. "You earn $1 million more over a lifetime if you have a college degree. That makes it pretty much a no-brainer."

Among the ROI argument's shortcomings, Rose said, is that the researchers calculate income lost during school years into the return on investment. It also does not incorporate how many college graduates go onto earn graduate degrees — 35 percent — that typically lead to even higher-paying careers, he said.

Also, he said, calculations about the number of students who do not finish college within six years largely exclude students who transfer and graduate from a different school than where they started.

That means about 67 percent of people who attend college actually do graduate within six years, Rose said. And 6 percent to 7 percent of those who don't graduate from a four-year college end up getting associate degrees or technical certificates, he said.

"If he says that, he's probably right," Sawhill said. "I think one counterpoint is that the longer it takes you to graduate, the more it's going to cost you. You're losing earnings and you're using the resources of the system longer."

The Brookings report does acknowledge many upsides to college that it doesn't account for. Those include social benefits like less crime and more political participation and contributions to "overall well-being," including job satisfaction, social interaction and improvements in parenting, trust and marriage.

"It's up to the individual to decide whether these non-monetary benefits are important," Sawhill said in an interview. "I think that it's not always clear that taxpayers should be subsidizing all of those non-monetary benefits" through federal education grants and other public funding.

Educators' concerns

In Sonoma County — where census data show 32 percent of residents age 25 or older, or roughly 120,000 people, have bachelor's degrees or higher — the question has resonated among those whose job it is to guide students' educational and career choices.

"I think it's a good question for us to ask," said Stephen Jackson, director of career development at the Sonoma County Office of Education.

"I think that it is more important nowadays given the cost of a college education and the variety of career opportunities that are out there for young people," Jackson said.

"I don't think schools as a whole do that very well," Jackson said. "We've been trained to sort of say, 'Lets get the kids on to four-year college,' and not pay attention to what sort of education and training would be good for what they want in a career."

Still, the lure of traditional college remains strong and broad-based.

"It's worth it, because even though at the end of the day you're going to have to pay some loans back, it's all about networking," said Gemma Bola?s, 19, of Sonoma, who just completed her freshman year at SSU and is the first in her family to go to college.

"I'm almost sure I'm going to be able to get a job pretty quickly once I graduate," said Bola?s, a criminal justice major who said friends have found work quickly after graduating.

Others say, as Silver does, the true value of their college education cannot be counted by the number of zeros on a paycheck.

"The whole point of education is to become informed, to be able to make decisions on a moral internal level," said Jude Rowe of Santa Rosa, who started at SRJC before moving on to SSU.

"Nobody can take that away from me," said Rowe, who graduated last Saturday with a bachelor's degree in applied physics.

But Rowe relied on scholarships, including tuition assistance for military veterans, to get through SSU.

Parents used savings

What about those who paid for their children to go to college, like Kim Carjuzaa of Irvine? She and her husband used family savings to pay college tuition for their son Nicolas.

A business administration major, he too graduated last week from SSU, which costs $26,314 a year for students living off campus, $12,402 of that in food and housing costs.

"It was a big sacrifice to put Nicolas through school but we didn't want him to come out with a lot of debt like we did," said Carjuzaa, an accountant.

"I don't look at this as a sure thing that he's going to be a success, because that comes from who a person is as an individual," Carjuzaa said. "I just hope that what Nicolas got out of this is some personal growth, some skills and that he will do well in a job interview."

At Santa Rosa High School, counselor Seth Geffner said students do ask him whether college is right for them. From parents, he said, he hears concerns about the cost.

The real question, he said, should be what kind of higher education fits the student's career desires.

"I think that's a better discussion," Geffner said. "Because it is important that everyone go on to some type of post-secondary education, but not just a four-year college."

For Rose, the Georgetown University economist, it is clear that more college graduates is good for the nation.

"It is a system that is, at the median, giving you big rates of returns, and at the margins, giving you adequate rates of return," he said. "Our economy values the B.A. and graduate production as being responsible for over half of all the country's earnings, and this is a system that's failing?"

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.