Advice Goddess Blog

What's College Worth, Anyway?

| | Comments (37)

What's College Worth, Anyway?
When I spoke to the kids at University High last week, I told them that I'd nearly quit school when I was in college. I'd always read piles of books, so it wouldn't be like I'd stop learning if I did quit, and I was impatient to get into the work world and to start doing something.

Still, I realized that not having a college degree might hold me back in other people's eyes -- employers' eyes, that is -- so I completed my last year, and graduated.

It turns out that there's a stat, promoted by the College Board, that the average college grad earns $1 million more. Via Reason, from an article on InsideHigherEd, Charles Miller, former head of Ed. Sec. Margaret Spelling's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, contends that the stat is wrong:

Miller's letter proceeds to point out all the ways in which the usual ways of assessing the value of a college degree are flawed: the calculations typically report the lifetime earnings in the "present value" of the dollar totals, rather than adjusting for inflation over time; include those with advanced degrees rather than those who have only a baccalaureate diploma; and assume that students finish college in four years in calculating a student's costs of and benefits from going to college, when relatively few on average do.

Substituting some of his own assumptions for those used by the board -- including six years of tuition costs (and hence two fewer years of work), private college tuition instead of in-state public tuition, etc. -- Miller calculates his own college premium. "[P]roperly using the present value of the lifetime earnings, adjusted for the cost of going to college and the difference in the number of working years, and excluding those graduates with advanced degrees, calculated at the three percent discount rate used in the report," he wrote, "produces a lifetime earnings differential of only $279,893 for a bachelor's degree versus a high school degree!"

He writes: "With clearly questionable assumptions in the analysis traditionally used to prove that 'education pays,' with the reality of continually increasing costs of college above average inflation, with weak income growth in general, and with the reality of a very narrow economic benefit to the individual with a college education, it is reasonable to conclude that a college degree is not as valuable as has been claimed."

Quite frankly, the idea that graduating with a liberal arts degree is the ticket to piles of cash, is something I find hilarious.

If you're driven, and you choose your career well, and you've got an entrepreneurial spirit or some smarts in investing, sure, you can make out. But, a philosophy degree from the University of Michigan, where I went to school for three years before graduating from NYU's ridiculous undergraduate film school, probably prepares you to earn less money than people who started working right out of high school and started their own businesses.

And again, nobody is going to stop you from learning, whether you go to school or not. These days, I go to psychology and evolutionary psychology conferences, and read the same journals as researchers in the field. I do it to make my work better, but I also do it because I'm interested.

I'm reminded of a guy I see at these conferences, a guy who does something in administration at Rutgers. He doesn't have a career in ev. psych. He just goes to learn. The public library, if you can't afford a trip to Kyoto, where this year's ev. psych conference is taking place, is yet another valuable resource for that.

In LA, it's the most amazing thing. The LA Public Library lets you put a hold on a library book -- for free! -- and have it sent across town to the library that's blocks from your house...for free! Of course, you have to be interested in learning something. And if you're just a grade grubber, you'll care less about that than the auto mechanic down the street.