The Pay Off Question

The justification people often use for higher tuition costs is that going to college “pays off” in terms of higher earnings.

The fact that it “pays off” in the aggregate, however, doesn’t mean it always pays off for every student, caution George Leef and Jenna Ashley Robinson of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. For a lot of graduates, going to college just means a lot of debt and a lot of pain. But is the solution to avoid college?

As they explain, the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that more education results in more money. The median college graduate earns $1,053 a week. The median high school graduate earns only $638 a week. Leef and Robinson write that:

Looking at the chart… it seems obvious that the path to financial success is to get a college degree—and then an advanced degree. The more education you have, the better off you’ll be. High school graduates, for example, are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as college graduates, and they earn substantially less money per week.

Unfortunately, he missed a crucial detail. All of these statistics are the median—representing the person separating the higher half of a sample from the lower half. It’s a mistake to assume that the median tells us what most people in that group will experience.

In fact, Leef and Robinson point out, the outliers here are pretty important.

Breaking the data down further is illustrative. Among workers making $20,000 or less annually, 6 percent have master’s degrees or higher, 14 percent have bachelor’s degrees, and 9 percent have associate’s degrees. Among those making between $20,000 and $35,000 annually, 5 percent have a master’s or higher, 15 percent have a bachelor’s, and 11 percent have an associate’s degree. Those individuals are earning well below the medians for their educational levels. Staying in school didn’t necessarily pay off for them.

Good point, so what’s the solution? Not much. As they put it:

An individual should not make decisions based on aggregate data, but rather on data pertinent to his or her particular circumstances. Consider Sue, who just finished high school. Should she go to college? The median earnings for Americans who have already gotten college degrees is irrelevant to Sue.

Wait, does any individual high school student make decisions about college based on aggregate data, ever? How many people check out Bureau of Labor Statistics updates to make major life choices?

Obviously semi-fictional Sue has some choices to make. Given the national trends, we can safely say that getting more education will probably lead to more money. Granted, the risk here is that more money isn’t immediate or guaranteed. That’s why cheaper college is important.

Merely saying that college doesn’t always pay off, while true, doesn’t really indicate that not going to college pays off. Because while college isn’t a sure path to financial stability, it’s probably a reasonably good path to financial stability. No further education, in contrast, is a pretty good path to poverty.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer