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What is a college degree really worth?

Here's some good news for college students just starting their academic year: The value of that piece of parchment they will get after graduation is holding its value. Even better, the time it takes to pay off a degree is near an all-time low.

That's according to a new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which assessed the financial value of a college degree amid widespread concern over mounting student debt and spiraling education costs.

While trends such as stagnant wages and a weak labor market for recent grads might make some question whether getting a degree was worth it, the study notes that the value of a bachelor's degree has barely budged and remains near $300,000. There has been some slight erosion, with the analysis finding that the value slipped somewhat after the Great Recession. But looking at the net present value -- the flow of costs and benefits of going to college over time -- it remains near its all-time high.

Steven Hartman reports on why a high school m... 02:39

"We estimate that the value of a college degree fell from about $120,000 in the early 1970s to about $80,000 in the early 1980s, before more than tripling to nearly $300,000 by the late 1990s, where it has remained, more or less, ever since," the study notes.

Another way to consider the value of a four-year degree is to assess how long it takes to break even in paying for college. By that measure, college grads are doing well, with the amount of time required to recoup the costs falling "substantially" over time and now hovering near all-time lows of about 10 years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, graduates needed about 20 years to repay the costs of a college education.

Still, the New York Fed cautions that while the study may "make it seem like college always pays handsomely, that may not always be the case for everyone." In a future analysis, the bank will consider what the impact is on students who take five or six years to finish their college studies.

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