Monday, June 02, 2014

Back to that nagging question ... is college worth it?

The answer is not as easy as one would like it to be.

For once, there is one commentary that I agree with without any qualifier at all:
The question “Is college worth it?” clearly can’t be answered unequivocally. So much depends on another question: “Worth it for whom?” Is college worth it for everyone? Worth it for an individual student? Worth it on average? Worth it for society? Each of those questions is likely to lead to a different answer.
Which is why when students or parents ask me about college or majors or graduate school, I don't tell them what I truly feel but, instead, I turn their question around and ask them what they want to get from that investment of time and money.  Because, it all depends.

For the most part, I criticize the current state of discussions because we do not take the effort to explain how the answer to "is college worth it?" will depend on so many issues that can easily vary across individuals.  Forget the elite schools--to those students, college is clearly worth it.  But the elite institutions are few, and the majority are places like the one where I teach.  It is at these places that answering the question is tricky and is not by any means a case of one answer fits all.

For one, economic class makes a huge difference in terms of college and earnings.
Suppose I got someone to make a chart showing the incomes of prime-age BMW drivers versus average Americans. It would reveal a large BMW earnings premium. I could even produce a chart showing that the children of BMW drivers grow up to earn more than the average American. But that wouldn't be evidence that BMWs cause high wages, and that the BMW Earnings Premiums extends across multiple generations. It would be evidence that high-income people buy expensive cars and that there's intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status.
The question of whether college is worth it needs to tease out that  intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status.  To disaggregate that data won't be easy, I would think.  Especially when the trend in terms of who attends college is clear:
Today, only about 7 percent of recent college graduates come from the bottom-income quartile, compared with 12 percent in 1970, when federal aid was scarce. From a liberal egalitarian point of view, we’re going in the wrong direction.
Even as we push college for all, we need to keep this bottom-line in mind:
unless the overall job market is booming, simply churning out more college graduates risks making everybody a bit poorer.
And the result will be a worsening of the very inequality that we hope college education will help narrow:
It’s also important to remember who would stand to lose the most if a surge of graduates did manage to bring down the college premium. Chances are, alums of elite schools wouldn’t be particularly affected, since any substantial growth would likely come from mid- and lower-tier schools. Graduate degree holders, the real winners of the educational race of the past 30 years, also wouldn’t be much affected. In the end, you’re essentially talking about an approach to inequality that involves bringing solidly, if unspectacularly, middle-class households a little closer to the bottom, while pushing down the bottom even deeper.
Depending on how we think through the question, our public policy suggestions will also differ.  If we take one route, we will then come to this public policy option:
Not so many decades ago, high school was considered the frontier of education. Some people even argued that it was a waste to encourage Americans from humble backgrounds to spend four years of life attending high school. Today, obviously, the notion that everyone should attend 13 years of school is indisputable.
But there is nothing magical about 13 years of education. As the economy becomes more technologically complex, the amount of education that people need will rise. At some point, 15 years or 17 years of education will make more sense as a universal goal.
That point, in fact, has already arrived.
Now, 15 or 17 years of education as a universal goal is entirely different from claiming that college is worth it but then requiring the student to bear that cost, right?   

As always, it is America's Finest News Source that provides clarity via asking this:
According to a new analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, though recent graduates often struggle to find work and student debt has passed the $1 trillion mark, a college education is more valuable than ever because the wage gap between grads and non-grads continues to grow. What do you think?
And the clear response is:
“Really? Well then, by all means, raise tuition.”
Yes, let them eat cakes!

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