David Feldman pushes back against the notion that college is a poor investment:
Okay, but the price tag is still very high; is it worth it? Absolutely. A college degree is an asset whose average value is $300,000 to $600,000 of extra lifetime earnings, measured in today’s dollars. And this value has risen steadily for the past 30 years. Your mileage may vary, depending on what you choose to study, but earning a college degree remains one of the best financial investments a person can make.
Nobody is saying that earning this degree is a guarantee of financial success. Even today, 18% of the college-educated workforce in prime working ages earns less than the median wage of a high school educated laborer. But in 1972, the figure was 30%. Think about that the next time someone claims that a college degree simply doesn’t pay off like it used to.
The “your mileage may vary” is understated here. It’s not just a matter of what you choose to study. It’s also a matter of who you are and where you go. People who go to some schools will make more than people who go to other schools. This is attributable to both the who and the where questions (because the who can determine the where). I am not sure where Feldman is getting his numbers, but it’s typically based on averages. And that’s problematic because the people who go to college are not the same people who don’t. Those who graduate and not the same as those who don’t. If anyone wants to point me to some numbers that are comparing apples-to-apples, I’d like to see them.
When we talk about who should and shouldn’t go to college, we should be talking about the borderline cases. Are the bottom quartile of those who go to college better off than financially than the top quartile of those who don’t? This is an overly simplistic way of putting it, since college admissions is inexact and the top quarter of people who miss out on college may well be smarter and more capable than the bottom quarter who go and even graduate. Of course, if those are the results, they are telling in their own way. So you might need to find more apples-to-apples comparisons. Though even that could be problematic because Person A may forgo college because they already have a great opportunity waiting for them while Person B is smart, has good grades, but doesn’t actually know anybody.
If I were to guess, I would say that even if you account for all of the variables, a college degree is still probably going to pay for itself over the course of a lifetime. This does not speak to the value of education, though. Rather, it speaks to (a) the networking opportunities available at college and more to the point (b) the credentialism. People with college degrees get to cut in front of a lot of lines. If everyone has a college degree, it negates the advantage.
Barring something unforeseen, Clancy and I will likely be encouraging our children to go to college. To some, this would make us hypocritical skeptics of universal college education. Actually, it means that we live in the real world. It’s reconciling ourselves to the system we have. A system that says everybody should go to college. It means contributing to a perpetuation of the system, but not supporting it on any ideological level.