What’s More Expensive Than Going to College? Not Going to College

This afternoon I’ll be meeting with prospective students and their parents. I hope that they’ve all read this report from the Pew Research Center:

Pew Research Center logoOn virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education. And when today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era….

The economic analysis finds that Millennial college graduates ages 25 to 32 who are working full time earn more annually—about $17,500 more—than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma. The pay gap was significantly smaller in previous generations. College-educated Millennials also are more likely to be employed full time than their less-educated counterparts (89% vs. 82%) and significantly less likely to be unemployed (3.8% vs. 12.2%).

“It’s still not worth the debt that these students need to go into to finish their degrees,” said your friend who once read a trend piece in the Style section of the New York Times and ever since has been insisting that college is becoming obsolete. Read on:

…About nine-in-ten [Millennials ages 25 to 32] with at least a bachelor’s degree say college has already paid off (72%) or will pay off in the future (17%). Even among the two-thirds of college-educated Millennials who borrowed money to pay for their schooling, about nine-in-ten (86%) say their degrees have been worth it or expect that they will be in the future.with at least a bachelor’s degree say college has already paid off (72%) or will pay off in the future (17%). Even among the two-thirds of college-educated Millennials who borrowed money to pay for their schooling, about nine-in-ten (86%) say their degrees have been worth it or expect that they will be in the future.

“But that’s mostly people who went to cheaper state schools,” persisted your friend… True, 70% of the respondents with a bachelor’s degree graduated from a public university (up from 66% two years ago), but… (from the full report, not the overview I’m mostly quoting)

University of Nebraska graduates
Graduation ceremony at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln – Creative Commons (John Walker)

Despite the higher sticker price at most private colleges, graduates from public and private schools express similar satisfaction in value for their money. Some 84% of public college graduates and 81% of private college graduates say that their education has paid off, and an additional 9% of public college graduates and 7% of private college graduates say it will pay off in the future. (p. 38)

Now, there are at least two things here to give me pause:

First, it’s remarkable to see the falling value of a high school diploma, which seems like just another indicator of the widening inequality in American society: “While earnings of those with a college degree rose, the typical high school graduate’s earnings fell by more than $3,000, from $31,384 in 1965 to $28,000 in 2013. This decline, the Pew Research analysis found, has been large enough to nearly offset the gains of college graduates.”

Second, the report does provide a bit of fodder for the “humanities in crisis” crowd:

…those who majored in science or engineering are less likely than social science, liberal arts or education majors to say in response to another survey question that they should have chosen a different major as an undergraduate to better prepare them for the job they wanted.

According to the survey, only about a quarter of science and engineering majors regretted their decision (24%), compared with 33% of those whose degree is in social science, liberal arts or education. Some 28% of business majors say they would have been better prepared for the job they wanted if they had chosen a different major.

But:

a. Overall, 29% say that would have been better prepared with a different major — I’m not sure that being four points higher than that is all that dramatic a difference.

b. And that 29% is outpaced by three other regrets: 50% wish they had gained more work experience in college; 38% that they had studied harder (only 38%!); and 30% that they had looked for work earlier.

c. “Social science, liberal arts or education” is what I think experts call a “catch all” (accounting for 37% of the graduates who responded).

d. We humanities types tend to stress that our fields of study prepare students “for a career, not a job”; while (pre)professional training might be more likely to lead quickly to a decent-paying post-baccalaureate job, by the peak earnings period (ages 56-60), our students have more than caught up. So it’s worth noting that only 31% of the Millennials in the survey said that they were already “in a career”…


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