Charles Wang, I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the University of Chicago in 2011
Whether returning to or entering college, the opportunity cost of college is the sum of:
-The cost of tuition, including tuition inflation over the course of the years you're in school -The earnings foregone over the course of college, including earnings growth that would have occurred during the years you're in school had you stayed out and worked.
In addition, there are some things that are often not considered but should be:
-Your overall academic ability and the likelihood that you will complete your degree, and in what time frame (3 years? 4? 5?). On average, only some 58% of college students complete a degree within 6 years. But even those with some college education fare better in the job market than those without any. Census and income data will confirm this, if you care to check. -The psychological and emotional effort required to pursue academic study; the affect of academic study on your personal happiness
You must weigh these against:
-Growth in earnings from increased human capital, which consists of: Hard skills: -Analytic skills and domain-specific knowledge -Habits of mind that allow you to learn and comprehend more quickly and thoroughly Soft skills: -Cultural and cultural capital absorbed and developed from having immersed yourself in a community of relatively educated people (your peers and professors), as well as the prestige bonus if you happen to attend a well-regarded institution.
Census data from 2008 (IPUMS) suggest that entry-level earnings for 22-year old college graduates are actually somewhat lower on average than those of high school graduates but rapidly overtake the earnings of high school graduates by the age of 25, at about 49% higher. By mid-career (age 45), the average college graduate easily takes home twice as much per year as the average high school graduate. Those with postgraduate education generally take home almost three times as much as high school graduates.
To make this a truly marginal analysis you will have to determine what your time preference (discounting) is, as well as rates of tuition growth rates (usually around 4% annually, but don't take my word for it), earnings growth rates, and likely entry-level earnings after college (it might help to know your major and intended career path beforehand). Combining this with the insights from IPUMS, you may be able to figure out the optimal tradeoff between years of college (and further education) and future earnings. Since there is much I don't know about you as a person, I can't supply your utility function for you so you'll have to do that yourself. Good luck!