Whether they get their diplomas from a high school or college, the question for graduates this spring will be the same: Is college worth it?

There are plenty of reasons to ask: A college education has never been more expensive, with costs rising faster than inflation. New graduates coming into the workforce are finding it hard to get jobs in their fields in a still-sluggish economy. And a trillion dollars of student loan debt is looming over our economy, making it more difficult for young people to marry, buy a first home or start saving for retirement.

But all graduates and their families can enjoy their accomplishment with a little less anxiety. Is college worth it? According to a survey of a number of recent studies, done by David Leonhardt of The New York Times, the answer is yes. In fact, it may never have been more valuable.

According to an analysis of Department of Labor statistics by the Economic Policy Institute, Americans with four-year college degrees earned 98 percent more than people without a degree, including those with two-year degrees and certificates. That’s up from 85 percent a decade ago and 64 percent in the early ‘80s. The pay gap has continued even as the number of college graduates has increased.

CALL TO ACTION

This is more than just encouraging news for individuals — it’s also a call to action for policymakers. Mainers have long known that our low rate of college attainment has held our economy back, but these numbers show just how much.

Helping more people get college degrees so they can earn higher incomes is one of the few levers of economic growth that we can control on a statewide level and should be a central goal of state policy. That means investing in education, so that graduates are prepared for college work, and helping students pay for their educations.

But it needs to go further than that. According to the EPI study, people who start college but don’t finish end up the biggest losers in the equation. It appears that having some college does not translate into earning a little more than people with none, and students who start school but don’t finish take on much of the cost of an education without gaining any of the benefit.

A challenge for educators is how to make sure that students make it to the finish line with a degree, especially students who are the first in their family to attend an institution of higher learning. They need social and academic support to make it through, and that should be a major policy priority.

Maine has a lot of work to do in this area.

The University of Maine does only an average job of moving students toward a degree. Seventy-six percent of freshmen continue for a second year, and 36 percent graduate in four years. Its six-year graduation rate is 59 percent, which is slightly better than the national average of 53 percent, but hardly a rate that could transform our economy.

The University of Southern Maine, a school with a high percentage of part-time and nontraditional-age students, fares less well. Its freshman retention rate is 64 percent, its four-year graduation rate is only 9 percent and its overall graduation rate is 30.4 percent, all below the national average.

There are many reasons why students don’t graduate. Being academically overwhelmed is one, but that’s not as big a factor as you might suspect. Studies show that students from middle-income and upper-income families graduate at a much higher rate than lower-income students, even if they had similar high school grades and test scores before they enrolled.

SOCIAL SUPPORT

One explanation is that students who have parents and siblings who are college graduates are likely to have more sources of social support when they hit hard times. The best way to improve Maine’s graduation rates would be to give lower-income students the same kind of social support that upper-income students get from their families.

This idea is not new to either institution. Both university campuses have programs that are designed to help students make their way, but the numbers show that they will have to do better for Maine to become a national leader in graduating its students.

Other efforts are needed to help the thousands of Mainers who have some college finish their educations, often while working full time and supporting families. They need academic advising and a system that makes it easier to transfer credits so busy people can assemble the pieces of a degree.

College graduates can rest assured this weekend that they have made the right sacrifice that will give them the best chance to succeed. High school graduates should have clarity about what they should do next.

But the state university system gets an incomplete. There is a great deal of work that will need to be made up before it receives a passing grade.