Chart of the day, College tuition edition

By Felix Salmon
September 9, 2009
John Caddell, and it shows the cost of attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a percentage of US median income. Scary stuff. But not as scary as David Leonhardt's column today, which demonstrates a nasty ghettoization effect at state colleges, many of which are turning into failure factories:

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This chart comes from John Caddell, and it shows the cost of attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a percentage of US median income. Scary stuff. But not as scary as David Leonhardt’s column today, which demonstrates a nasty ghettoization effect at state colleges, many of which are turning into failure factories:

Only 33 percent of the freshmen who enter the University of Massachusetts, Boston, graduate within six years. Less than 41 percent graduate from the University of Montana, and 44 percent from the University of New Mexico.

There are serious problems with incentives, here: colleges get paid according to their enrollment, not according to the number of students they graduate. And with freshmen cheaper to teach than seniors, it actually benefits a college to have more of the former than the latter.

The first order of business here is to level the playing field: at the moment, poor kids have an alarming tendency to attend colleges with low graduation rates, even when they’re more than capable of getting into colleges with higher graduation rates. They thereby essentially give their rightful place at the better schools to richer kids, who are much more likely to graduate in the first place. That’s why Joe Weisenthal is wrong here:

The authors cite students who go to Eastern Michigan University (39% graduation rate), but who could have gone to University of Michigan (88% graduation rate). But UMich is already at maximum capacity — as are other elite schools — so for one thing, an influx of new applicants, would just displace students, and we’d be back to ground zero. But beyond that, how do we know that the the UMich graduation rate would stay constant given an influx of students who used to go to Eastern Michigan? That’s a gigantic variable.

The point is that the displaced students would be richer students who would be much more likely to graduate in any case, even if they went to Eastern Michigan University. And even if the UMich graduation rate fell from 88%, it would still be much higher than 39%.

This, from Weisenthal, is also silly:

While the educators complain that high schools aren’t doing enough to prepare students for college, the goal of “improved matriculation” sounds just as silly. Just as graduating from high school doesn’t automatically make you prepared for college, graduating from college doesn’t automatically make you ready for the real world.

No, but it makes you much more employable, and it does wonders for your lifetime earnings. Lots of companies simply won’t employ a college drop-out, no matter how qualified they are, and will employ a less-able college graduate instead. It’s often the first filter applied: companies won’t even look at people without a degree.

Improving the matriculation rate therefore improves the range of choice presented to employers, and improves the overall quality of the white-collar workforce. It benefits everyone, except for maybe dubiously-competent graduates who right now don’t really need to compete, in the job market, against smarter applicants who unfortunately dropped out of college. If those smarter applicants get themselves degrees, the less-competent will find it harder to get jobs.

Update: Ryan Avent seems to think that dropouts are dropouts, wherever they attend university. I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, the presence or absence of a campus makes a big difference: students are much more likely to drop out if there isn’t one. And for another thing, there are all manner of peer effects: if most of your peers are dropping out, you’re more likely to follow suit than if nearly all of them are graduating.

Update 2: Oops, Charles Kenny just pointed out that Caddell was using the wrong numerators in his chart, he was using the top line when he should have been using the second line. So I’ve deleted the chart, as it stood it was very misleading.

Update 3: Caddell has fixed the chart, so it’s back.

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