When Is College Worth It?

It’s important to remember that though college makes good financial sense, not all college degrees are created equal.  A new paper by Temple economics professor Douglas Webber makes this point by highlighting a few factors which determine whether college is worth it. The first, major choice, surprised him. As he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “even after controlling for as wide a range of selection biases as possible, there were still such big differences in lifetime earnings across majors.” That’s right, kids. You’re going to make a lot more money if you study petroleum engineering over elementary education.

The second, says Webber, is which college you attend: “There’s a big piece of the puzzle that many studies and many articles in the popular press miss. Not all colleges are created equal. There’s a big difference if you’re talking about going to Harvard or to a random college no one’s ever heard of.” Contrary to what elite schools would have the public believe, it’s not some knowledge obtained only at Harvard that gives them an advantage. Rather, it’s the Harvard imprimatur on an applicant’s résumé that helps them get the job at Goldman Sachs, Google, or ExxonMobil.

Third, and very important, is the fact that “people also miss that less than 60 percent of 18-year-olds starting college full time are actually going to earn a degree within six years.” A huge number of people leaving school with lots of debt and no degree should be incentive enough for policymakers to refrain from the “college for all” chorus.

Still, says Webber, earnings aren’t everything: “They shouldn’t make all of their decisions based solely on which major has the highest potential earnings. They have to take into account things like what they enjoy, what they’re good at. Those all matter a lot in terms of lifetime satisfaction. Money isn’t everything. But money is important.”

The “money is important” line could be taken as a cynical assessment of the human condition. But Webber has a point. Many college students who find the academic value of social science and liberal arts majors (less challenging, in my experience, than STEM majors) alluring in college fail to account for the fact that these subjects produce a lesser rate of return than virtually all STEM subjects. In turn, when the parties fade and age thirty approaches, more graduates than ever are less advantaged toward buying homes, getting married, or having kids. (Just this Sunday, the Wall Street Journal ran a strong piece on student loan debt holding back the housing market). Academics who insist that college is uniformly worth it may be right in the aggregate, but they also ought to present their findings with a greater degree of nuance.

David Wilezol

David Wilezol is the co-author of "Is College Worth It?" with former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

One thought on “When Is College Worth It?”

  1. Sometimes, people can find a wonderful job doing something they’re great at — and if they are lucky it pays well. Other times, people take a job for the money alone, and find deeper personal satisfaction in their hobbies and charity work. In either case, personal satisfaction and a sense of doing important work in the world are huge factors in the “good life.” Money is crucial until you have enough to pay the rent and buy the food–after that, it isn’t particularly important. Ask anyone on his death bed and that is what you will discover. Education should always serve the whole person and the whole society, because at its best education is a public good. One’s job is not one’s whole self; serving onself is not one’s whole purpose.

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