Is It Better to Be Joe College or Joe the Plumber?

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Going to college—the best college possible—used to be a no-brainer. But now, in light of the big loans and bad job prospects recent grads are facing, perhaps the equation has changed.

Not long ago, The Cheapskate Blog asked “Is College a Bad Investment?” Now, USA Today asks, “Is College Worth It?”

On the one hand, accumulating mounds of debt seems silly unless there’s a nice payoff in the form of a solid, well-paid career—and there are ways other than college to get into good careers, like plumbing. On the other, in today’s ultra-competitive job market, getting any leg up—and yes, a college degree still helps big-time in most fields—is a smart move. From USA Today:

In July, the unemployment rate for college graduates was 4.7%, up from 2.8% a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s still considerably lower than the 9.4% rate for workers with only a high school diploma.

But unlike out-of-work high school graduates, many unemployed college grads face the additional burden of student loan payments. Two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients last year graduated with an average debt of about $23,000, according to, a financial aid website.

Total debt for borrowers with graduate or professional degrees ranges from $30,000 to $120,000, says.

New graduates face an even more unforgiving job market. Employers expect to hire 22% fewer graduates from the class of 2009 than they hired from the class of 2008, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

No one should think of college as a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s a long-term investment. But does it pay off like most people assume? And what sort of education is the smartest investment?

At the very least, students are shifting their approach to college due to the recession. There’s a newfound focus on getting value for their tuition dollars, and publicly supported colleges are looking more and more attractive compared to pricey private schools. Community college enrollments are soaring; 86 percent of community colleges report an increase in full-time students. Meanwhile, 70 percent of high school students have reportedly abandoned their “dream schools” and opted for more affordable colleges.

No matter what, if you or your kids are heading to college (or to any school), everyone likes easy ways to save. Check out these ten back-to-school tips and strategies for saving, and some advice to help college kids avoid credit card debt.