It’s back-to-college time, which means it’s the season for bitching and moaning about rising college costs, lack of access to higher education, and the pressing need for even more taxpayer-funded subsidies to the leaders of tomorrow. In just the past few days, we’ve been subjected to breathless reports that “college tuition costs” have risen 500 percent since 1985 and a mini-campaign swing by President Obama touting more free money for students and a federally sanctioned knock-off of college guides already provided by The Princeton ReviewU.S. News & World ReportWashington MonthlyBarron’s, and countless other sources.

Enough already. The plain facts are that college is still well within reach of most Americans, the wage premium for a college sheepskin remains huge, and student loans are not a new form of indentured servitude. You wouldn’t get any of that from grandstanding politicians always looking for a new way to rob Peter to buy Paul’s vote, an educational establishment that’s always on the hunt for new revenue sources, and a news media that alternates between the credulity and ignorance of, well, a first-semester freshman.

According to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), total tuition, fees, room, and board at four-year colleges for the 2011-12 academic year came to $23,066 on average. For state schools, the cost was substantially less (about $16,000 per year) and for private schools, it was substantially more (about $34,000 per year). In inflation-adjusted dollars (as opposed to the unadjusted figures favored by alarmists), that’s about twice as much as costs were in 1985. As a recent New York Times headline put it, “College Costs: Rising, Yet Often Exaggerated.”

Rising costs (and we’ll get to reasons for that in a moment) haven’t deterred people from going to college. About 68 percent of high school seniors enroll in two- or four-year higher education right after they graduate, a percentage that has stayed at or near historic highs for the past decade. (In 1985, by comparison, just 58 percent enrolled.) If college were being priced out of the reach of most Americans, that percentage would surely be cratering, especially in the depths of the Great Recession.

Coming up with $23,000 a year for a residential college is a lot of money, but the sticker price is routinely offset by various grants and other forms of aid (as in everything else, only suckers pay retail). There’s also a good reason why so many people go on for more schooling. Depending on your assumptions, a college degree generally increases lifetime earnings between $280,000 and $1 million. According to NCES, full-time, annual median earnings for college grads between 25 and 34 are about $15,000 per year more than they are for high school grads.

As important, college grads at every stage of their careers are far less likely to be unemployed than non-grads. Recent grads are about 2 percentage points less likely to be unemployed than the typical worker, and older college grads are half as likely to be unemployed as those with a high-school diploma.

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