As the price of higher education climbs, an old question is gaining new currency: What is a college degree worth? There is more than one way to answer, but a common method of analysis indicates that the relative value of higher education is far greater than it was in the past. Frank Levy, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, cites these figures: In 1950, the income of a 30-year-old man with four years of college was 30 percent higher than his counterpart with four years of high school; by 1969, the gap had closed to 25 percent, and by 1973, it was down to 15 percent. "The trend was sufficiently strong to suggest that the market for college-educated workers might be saturated and that college was no longer a good economic investment," Levy wrote in a 1988 Brookings Institution publication, "American Living Standards: Threats and Challenges." For the remainder of the 1970s, the gap hovered between 15 and 20 percent. But in the 1980s, it began to widen, and by 1986, college-educated men were earning 49 percent more than high school graduates. "That's an extraordinary growth," said Richard J. Murnane, an economist at Harvard's graduate school of education. "It's not that college graduates have done so remarkably well, but that for high school graduates, particularly for males, the bottom fell out." Economists emphasize that the 1970s were difficult times for most wage earners, regardless of education, but that they were more difficult for young, less-educated males. This group of workers had historically fared well in manufacturing, and so suffered disproportionately when manufacturing jobs declined in the 1970s. "The Forgotten Half," a study issued last year by the W.T. Grant Foundation, reported that the real earnings of male college graduates, age 20 to 24, dropped 6 percent between 1973 and 1986, but high school graduates lost 28 percent and men with less than a high school degree lost 42 percent. A much more difficult question to answer is whether a degree from an elite college is worth more than a degree from a less prestigious one. Social scientists have shied from this issue, arguing that the information was unavailable and that it would be tricky to separate out whether higher earnings were due to a prestigious degree or the superior abilities of the worker. But a preliminary study released last year, which followed the careers of a group of 1972 high school graduates, concludes that the choice of school can carry a slight advantage in later earnings. It also found, however, that there is a much larger advantage associated with a student's choices and achievement at college, regardless of the institution. The study, by Estelle James, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and three researchers at the Education Department, found that selective, private eastern institutions account for a one percent variation in earnings, worth a few hundred dollars annually for the average wage earner. That compares to a 5 percent advantage in wages for students who earned a higher grade point average, took more math courses and chose lucrative majors, primarily engineering and business. "While sending your child to Harvard appears to be a good investment, sending him to your local state university to major in engineering, and preferably to attain a high GPA, is an even better private investment, from the perspective of increasing future earnings," the study said. "Apparently, what matters most is not which college you attend but what you do while you are there, a finding that has important and, we believe, encouraging, policy implications."