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State support for higher education fell by 11 percent between 2008 and 2011 as the recession cut deeply into state revenue and forced draconian budget cuts. Student loans have filled the gap as other sources of funding dried up.

John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities, called the sharp increase in student debt “worrisome,” but he still recommends that young people pursue college degrees, given the better income prospects of graduates over the long run.

“Debt burdens are becoming increasingly difficult to manage,” he said, driving up delinquencies and bankruptcies while complicating and often delaying the transition into independent adulthood.

Mr. Silvia also rejected Mr. Thiel’s comparison of the explosive growth of student debt to the housing bubble in the past decade. At its peak, mortgage debt totaled $14 trillion — far more than the $1 trillion total of outstanding student debt today, he said.

Moreover, the money spent on college will more than pay for itself in higher incomes, while the money spent on expensive homes during the housing bubble often proved to be poor investments, he said.

More jobs require degrees

“A growing share of jobs in the economy use some cognitive thinking, and these jobs tend to require a college degree,” he said, adding that the number of jobs requiring postsecondary education will only increase.

Heidi Shierholz, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, said the difficulties of recent graduates reflect the extraordinary weakness of the job market after more than 8 million people lost their jobs during the recession.

The 5 percent drop in earnings of recent graduates since 2008 contrasts with the robust 19 percent growth in wages graduating classes recorded between 1995 and 2000, when the economy was booming and unemployment fell below 4 percent.

“The stark difference between these two economic periods illustrates how the wages for young graduates vary considerably depending on the health of the U.S. labor market,” she said. “Young graduates who enter the labor market during periods of strength face much stronger wage prospects than young graduates who enter the labor market during periods of weakness.”

Peter Morici, business professor at the University of Maryland, said students should keep in mind that not all college degrees are equal. What people study in college makes a big difference as far as their future employability and earnings.

“A worker with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering earns about $120,000, while a degree in counseling psychology fetches just $29,000,” he said. “Even business degrees differ dramatically in value. Finance, accounting and supply-chain majors are worth a lot more than general business and human resources management graduates.”

John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an outplacement firm, agreed that graduates with degrees in accounting, engineering, information technology, financial services, sales and marketing, and human resources are more likely to find jobs than people with other majors.

But he added that the overall job market for recent graduates is gradually improving as employers increasingly realize they cannot forever rely on older workers and must recruit and train the workers of the future.

“Last year was slightly better than 2010, and this year should be slightly better than 2011,” he said. “Unfortunately, those expecting a rapid turnaround and sudden burst in hiring will be disappointed. Entry-level hiring is nowhere near pre-recession levels.”