One can’t read George Leef on almost any given day here on NRO or at the Pope Center — or Megan McArdle’s excellent post yesterday on the high cost of college — without thinking hard about when college does (and does not) make financial sense. Megan posts an interesting chart showing the lifetime earnings differential between a college degree and a high school diploma as about $1.1 million. That’s a hefty amount, but made a bit less hefty when you consider that she calculates the present value of that money as around $250,000, while some private schools can approach $200,00 in total cost.
At the same time, however, such broad-based studies can only tell us so much. Since the typical path for disciplined, diligent kids takes them through college, it’s tough to tell how much of that $1.1 million in additional value is added by college or is just inherent in their disciplined approach to life. Perhaps a better analysis takes a profession-by-profession march through our economy, distinguishing between those professions that necessarily require degrees (such as, say, mechanical engineering or teaching), those that don’t (plumbing, firefighting, carpentry), and those where the college requirement is more an artifact of cultural inertia than a functional job requirement (many state and federal jobs). In other words, if you take an equally diligent and disciplined young man and teach him to be a commercial electrician, will he earn more or less than he would earn starting as an insurance adjuster at Allstate? While there are sites that purport to project earnings by career — like this one — I don’t know of any comprehensive study breaking down the difference.
Of course, this approach ignores a vital aspect of college life — the incalculable value of knowledge for its own sake. Thankfully, there will always be a market for people who want to read Shakespeare, to reflect with Burke on the revolution in France, or to deconstruct fast-food commercials for evidence of patriarchy and hegemony (every culture needs its thinkers and critics), but this market by itself could never sustain our vast higher-education infrastructure. That infrastructure sustains itself largely by promising to be a gateway to a better economic life. Yet I’m not convinced that the bachelor’s degree, by itself, has much marginal value compared to the underlying work habits and character of the individual.