Is College Worth It? Let’s Get Real

May 29, 2014 | Blog, News

Once again, thanks to the New York Times there’s yet another discussion ranging on Twitter and elsewhere about whether college is worth it.  The discussion is typically technocratic, focusing on comparisons and counterfactuals, trying to pinpoint the economic return to college degrees for specific groups of students. Missing from nearly all of the conversation is honesty about why the question is being raised in the first place.  Is college worth it? Who among the top 50% is actually questioning this?

Get real: the answer is immaterial. These people are going to college because education is a good thing according to their social class norms.  More education is even better. So, those people in the top 50% who are posing the question are doing it for (on behalf of?) the bottom 50%.  And they are fundamentally asking not “is college worth it?” but “who should go to college among those in the bottom 50%?” and “what should we pay for those people to go?” Because if education cost nothing to provide, the question would be moot. In the 21st Century, it’s notable that these same curious people are not asking “Is high school worth it?” even though high school dropout remains a problem and of course it costs money to offer high school as well. What is so magical about the 12th year of education versus the 14th? Absolutely nothing. So why is “worthiness” asked of the 14th year? Because the country simply hasn’t gotten around to providing a free public option. It will soon, and the question will be moot.

Then we will get to the really important question: Which colleges are worth attending? This question needs to be directed at the colleges where students take on significant financial risks to attend– the private colleges. And that is where the questions ought to be directed, since the public subsidizes them while extracting no accountability in return.  The question should be asked and answered on a college by college basis with rigorous randomized experiments.  We should expect nothing less as proof of the return on investment, and it’s incredible that the top 50% wouldn’t demand it — unless college college for them really isn’t about education at all, but rather simply about status.

And there’s the truth. “Is College Worth It?” is the latest example of class warfare in America. Recognize it for what it is, and ask yourself why you’re responding with econometrics.

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