Phi Beta Cons

Another Round in the ‘Is College Worth It?’ Match

Writing on the CCAP blog, Andrew Gillen gives his thoughts on the supposed proof that a college degree must be a good investment because the median weekly earnings of people who have degrees is significantly higher than the earnings of people who don’t. He notes that writers like Dave Leonhardt of the New York Times think that this settles the argument in favor of the “Go get that degree!” crowd.

Gillen gives some sound reasons for disagreeing with that facile conclusion. Here’s what I’d add.

The median earnings for people who earned college degrees at some point in the past (bear in mind that the work entailed in earning a degree 40 years ago is probably far more than it is today) do not tell us anything about the prospective earnings for any individual who might enroll in college today. That is, the “Is college worth it?” debate cannot be settled on the basis of a broad historical average. It can be settled (or better, approached) only by looking at individuals making their decision now and trying to assess their probable results if they choose college or choose some other path.

Let’s say that Bill is a middling student at a middling high school. He isn’t really much interested in academic work, but likes to fiddle around with cars. Does the graph showing higher median earnings for individuals with college degrees clinch it that he ought to enroll in college and major in something not too demanding (like business) rather than finding a program that would train him in automotive repair? Definitely not.

Or if you’ve read In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, consider the pitiable students who populate the English 101 classes the pseudonymous author teaches. They’re barely literate, struggling with the basics of writing. If they manage to accumulate enough credits to graduate, they’ll have a credential that allows them to get into the competition for marginally better work than they currently have, perhaps going from motel desk clerk to assistant manager in a retail store. Maybe that works out, maybe not; but is it beyond dispute that these students are making a good move in going after the degree as opposed to looking for vocational training that enhances their existing skills?

If you think about actual people rather than statistical averages, I think the “Yes, college is worth it!” conclusion crumbles.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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