Education: Is going to college worth it?

A new paper from the Brookings Institution claims that “we may have overdone the message” on college.

Maybe “the old college try isn’t the answer for everyone,” said Brenda Cronin in At least that’s what a new paper from the Brookings Institution claims, warning that “we may have overdone the message” on college. Researchers in Canada have drawn similar conclusions, warning that college degrees don’t guarantee satisfying or well-paid jobs—even though college graduates do have a lower jobless rate than those who didn’t attend college. But there are several factors to consider when deciding whether investing in a college degree makes sense. Students who study engineering and sciences tend to earn more than those who major in arts or education. Vocational-technical training programs that teach programming, plumbing, or welding are also worth exploring, since “employers are desperate” for workers with such skills.

The real issue isn’t whether people should go to college, said Dylan Matthews in, but whether colleges are performing well enough. What’s really at issue in the Brookings report “is the ‘return on investment’ (ROI) to college.’’ That is, how much more money you can expect to earn by going to college than if you don’t go at all. And “generally speaking, the annual ROI for college is enormous.” While science majors, math majors, and highly selective institutions tend to have a higher ROI than less selective schools and humanities programs, they still all report higher lifetime earnings than the average high school graduate. Some colleges that are both expensive and focused on the arts may, in fact, have a negative ROI—that is, fail to pay for themselves after graduation. “But there isn’t a major that reduces lifetime earnings relative to earnings without college.”

If you do enroll in college, be sure to see it through, said Matthew Yglesias in “Going to college isn’t a passive investment like buying a four-year bond.” Students have to attend classes, write papers, and do the work to earn their degree. That means individuals need to weigh not just the potential ROI on a college degree, but how likely they are to actually get it—so be sure to research the graduation rates at any schools you’re considering. But there’s also a societal issue here—specifically, the “sheepskin effect.” For some reason, “getting a bachelor’s degree is worth much more than double what completing two years of college and then dropping out is worth.” In some ways, degrees convey diligence and conformity—and employers like that. For an individual, that’s worth keeping in mind. “But as a society, we should ask whether there isn’t some more cost-effective way young people show that they’re willing and able to pursue multiyear projects.”

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