The Value of Going to College

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Some people argue that too many people go to college these days. High school grads sign up for community college without the necessary academic skills, and others go to a state university and drop out before they graduate. It's a waste of their time and money, these people argue, and it's a waste of taxpayer money as well.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that this is a big argument in right wing circles that advocate for spending less money on education. It's one of the Goldwater Institute's favorite higher education topics. But that shouldn't matter. The question is, do too many people go to college? Are they wasting their money, and ours?

According to a column in the Sunday NY Times, the answer is no. A college education makes a difference, especially for students who graduate but even for those who don't. Obviously, there are plenty of anecdotal examples of people who were lousy high school students, then excelled in college—the column has a good one—but the column cites a few studies indicating that marginal students attending a four year college earn more than similar students who don't.

I'm always skeptical of education-related studies whether I like their conclusions or not, but the studies mentioned in the column look better than most. They compare two groups of people with almost identical SAT scores, but one group just made the cutoff for getting into certain colleges — an 840 SAT score — and the other group just missed with an 830. There's no discernible difference between students within that 10 point spread, so when you compare where they end up, it's reasonable to say the college experience was part of the difference.
[T]he two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.

Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found.

[snip]

Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it — 22 percent more on average, according to the Florida study, which was done by Seth D. Zimmerman, a Princeton economist who will soon move to the University of Chicago. “If you give these students a shot, they’re ready to succeed,” said Mr. Zimmerman, adding that he was surprised by the strength of the findings.
The takeaway from these studies, if they're accurate, is that we should encourage people who want to attend community college or university to make the leap, even if their qualifications are marginal. Once they arrive, every effort should be made to help them graduate, but even if they don't, the experience gives them a leg up on similar high school grads who don't take the next educational step.

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