The value of a college education

By Felix Salmon
September 5, 2009
Drew Gilpin Faust likes to talk about the "worrisome impact" of "America’s deep-seated notion that a college degree serves largely instrumental purposes", she's still happy coming out with stuff like this:

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For all that Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust likes to talk about the “worrisome impact” of “America’s deep-seated notion that a college degree serves largely instrumental purposes”, she’s still happy coming out with stuff like this:

A widespread perception of the value of universities derives in no small part from very pragmatic realities: a college education yields significant rewards. The median earnings for individuals with a B.A. are 74 percent higher than for workers who possess only a high school diploma.

This is the kind of lying-with-statistics which academics should be debunking, not propagating. If you want to know what the rewards are of going to college, you need to compare the lifetime earnings of people who went to college with those who could have gone to college but didn’t. It’s trivially true that the kind of people who go to college will earn more than the kind of people who don’t. What’s interesting is whether the kind of people who can go to college benefit financially from doing so.

Here’s Rolfe Winkler:

How much more will you make if you go to college than if you don’t? Are those extra earnings enough to pay back your loans with interest, along with the opportunity cost of forgoing full-time wages while you’re a student?

A common misconception is that a college degree is worth a million dollars over the average working lifetime. But a paper published late last year by the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges pegs the value at close to a tenth of that, $121,539.

The study I’d love to see is the one looking at the lifetime earnings of Harvard dropouts, and comparing them to the lifetime earnings of people who graduated from Harvard. If you include Bill Gates, it’ll seem as though dropping out of Harvard makes you more money than completing your studies there. Even if you don’t, it’s far from obvious what the results of such a survey would be.

There are good non-financial reasons to go to college, as Faust says. But as the cost of going to college increases, the purely financial cost-benefit analysis is becoming non-trivial, especially if you end up having to take out enormous student loans.

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