The Lousy Investment?

Megan McArdle over at the Daily Beast wonders if college is becoming a bad investment. Because it now doesn’t guarantee a good job, she ponders whether it’s worth it. This is a very strange way to look at the purpose of higher education.

As she writes:

We all seem to agree that a college education is wonderful, and yet strangely we worry when we see families investing so much in this supposedly essential good. Maybe it’s time to ask a question that seems almost sacrilegious: is all this investment in college education really worth it?

The answer, I fear, is that it’s not. For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus.

Well yes, this is a good point. But it doesn’t mean college isn’t worth it. The better question to ask is: does it leave them worse off than they would be if they never set foot on campus? And that’s where this idea starts to break down.

The reality is that college graduates earn a lot more than people who don’t go to college. They make about 84% more over a lifetime than mere high school graduates. They’re also more likely to be employed than high school graduates, even if in somewhat crappy jobs, during times of economic recession.

So much of this college as bad investment talk comes from the realization that college is just a lot more expensive than it used to be. McArdle:

The price of a McDonald’s hamburger has risen from 85 cents in 1995 to about a dollar today. The average price of all goods and services has risen about 50 percent. But the price of a college education has nearly doubled in that time. Is the education that today’s students are getting twice as good? Are new workers twice as smart? Have they become somehow massively more expensive to educate?

No, not at all. What’s happened is that we’re just not devoting the same public resources to students’ education. It’s not that people are dramatically more expensive to educate; it’s that we’ve pushed more of the total cost of that education to students. The average state support for public colleges and universities (which between 75 and 80 percent of college students attend) was $6,532 in 2010. That’s a 7 percent decrease from 2009. It’s also that lowest level in the last 25 years.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that paying for college is a secure, responsible investment. It is more expensive, and college students aren’t assured the same benefits they used to be.

But the real problem is that wrong people—individual college students, rather than taxpayers—are making more of the investment. But they’re not getting paid any more than they used to.

Going to college doesn’t guarantee a good job and financial stability. That’s a problem, especially since students themselves now have pay so much for college. But not going to college at all virtually guarantees poor job prospects and financial instability.

But this is the problem with thinking of college like an “investment.” There are no other investments that work like this. College is now a necessary but insufficient condition for securing professional employment. So depending on the price of one’s college, college can be a pretty risky investment. Not going to college, in contrast, isn’t a risky investment; it’s pretty much a surefire way to ensure a lifetime of bad jobs and frequent unemployment.

[Note that I’m generally assuming “college” here includes all further training beyond high school, including vocational certificates. I’m not sure if that’s what McArdle means; it does change the nature of thinking of this as an investment, at least a little.]

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