What you (still) get with your college degree: A better shot at the 1%

October 19, 2011, 7:23 PM UTC

source: Flickr

FORTUNE — The burden of student loans amid high unemployment is driving part of the protests among the Occupy Wall Street movement. Earlier this month college students were encouraged to join the call through Occupy Colleges, which started as a Facebook page and Twitter handle.

This isn’t much of a surprise, given soaring tuition costs and the fact that Americans last year began owing more on their student loans than their credit cards. As Dan Primack pointed out last week, perhaps it’s time for students to start demanding lower tuition from colleges instead of reform on Wall Street.

No one will argue that the young haven’t had a rough go in the job market lately. But it’s important to point out that those people with a bachelor’s degree are likely to earn more — if not rise to the richest 1% — than those without one. Which is ironic for a movement based largely on anger at the inequities of America since the spectrum of folks who identify themselves as part of the 99% are far from equal.

Needless to say, 20-somethings mired in debt face huge hurdles entering the working world. It has taken recent grads longer to secure jobs and they’re taking jobs that don’t need a college degree. What’s more, they’re earning less. Graduates of four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 earned a median starting salary of $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force between 2006 to 2008, according to a Rutgers University study released in May.

All this might give students across college campuses less incentive to take on more debt and finish college. But that’s just short-sighted.

True, the cost of college is steep. For those with a four-year bachelor’s degree, the average cumulative debt has increased by 5.6% or $1,139 a year since 2003-04, according to Finaid.org.  And the Federal Reserve Bank of New York just announced that student loan debt topped $1 trillion for the first time. But a bachelor’s degree boosts hiring and earnings potential. As Fortune highlighted recently, at 22, the average college grad earns about 70% more than the average person with only a high school degree, according to a June study by Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project.

The prospects get better with age. In 2010, college graduates at the peak of their careers (or 50 years old) earned about $46,000 more than those with only a high school diploma.

So while those in the “We are 99%” camp might feel left out today, the segment earning college degrees might feel less so years from now.