As he approaches graduation in May, Student Government President Ed Wolf considers himself fortunate.
"If I was starting now, I'm not sure I could do it," says the computer engineering major from Connecticut.
His father, a union electrician, has experienced layoffs of a month or more in each of the past five years. To devote time to Student Government, Wolf made the decision to give up his student job. He's used salary from his co-op jobs toward his final year's tuition.
"I've had to make sacrifices," says Wolf.
There's little doubt that higher education is worth some sacrifices, even in these uncertain times. College grads have many more career opportunities and they make more money than high school graduates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, annual salaries for people with master's degrees average $72,800 and people with bachelor's degrees earn an average of $57,000 annually, while the annual pay for high school grads averages $31,000.
Unemployment rates are higher for high school grads, averaging 4.4 percent in 2007, twice that of bachelor's degree graduates (2.2 percent). The unemployment rate for workers with master's degrees was 1.8 percent in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The downside of higher education is the cost: About 60 percent of students borrow to fund their education and the typical bachelor's degree graduate leaves college owing more than $22,000. Average debt rose 18 percent between 2000-01 and 2006-07 (figures adjusted for inflation), according to the CollegeBoard organization.
Early in 2009, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook projected that the overall average salary offer made to bachelor's degree graduates this spring would be about $49,300, holding steady with last year's average.
Wolf sees this as an important time to go to college because the world has such great need for educated people, especially those who bring innovation and creativity to the workplace. He believes Generation X and Generation Y - his peers - embrace change and are ready "to learn from history, and make our own history."
The world can't afford to waste the potential of its young people.
"If somebody has the ability and the passion to learn, but simply can't afford it - that's just not right," says Wolf.
"Higher education is an opportunity that shouldn't be limited to those who can afford it."