Whither Higher Education?

Ken AshfordEducation2 Comments

I recently had a discussion with someone about the merits of higher education when it comes to future income.  And as if on cue, the Wall Street Journal today covers the same subject.

There is a sense that a liberal arts degree doesn't really get you anything in terms of a career, and one would be better off with a post-graduate degree in medicine, law, business, etc.

And that's certainly true, but even getting a college degree can make a staggering difference in income, compared to those who just graduate from high school.  At least, that's always been the perception:

For years, higher education was touted as a safe path to professional and financial success. Easy money, in the form of student loans, flowed to help parents and students finance degrees, with the implication that in the long run, a bachelor's degree was a good bet. Graduates, it has long been argued, would be able to build solid careers that would earn them far more than their high-school educated counterparts.

The numbers appeared to back it up. In recent years, the nonprofit College Board touted the difference in lifetime earnings of college grads over high-school graduates at $800,000, a widely circulated figure. Other estimates topped $1 million.

But tuitions have skyrocketed in recent years, and the conventional wisdom, while still true, may not be as true:

The problem stems from the common source of the estimates, a 2002 Census Bureau report titled "The Big Payoff." The report said the average high-school graduate earns $25,900 a year, and the average college graduate earns $45,400, based on 1999 data. The difference between the two figures is $19,500; multiply it by 40 years, as the Census Bureau did, and the result is $780,000.

Others, like Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research, consider the higher education "payoff" to be even lower:

Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, calls it "a million-dollar misunderstanding."

One problem he sees with the estimates: They don't take into account deductions from income taxes or breaks in employment. Nor do they factor in debt, particularly student debt loads, which have ballooned for both public and private colleges in recent years. In addition, the income data used for the Census estimates is from 1999, when total expenses for tuition and fees at the average four-year private college were $15,518 per year. For the 2009-10 school year, that number has risen to $26,273, and it continues to increase at a rate higher than inflation.

Dr. Schneider estimated the actual lifetime-earnings advantage for college graduates is a mere $279,893 in a report he wrote last year. He included tuition payments and discounted earning streams, putting them into present value. He also used actual salary data for graduates 10 years after they completed their degrees to measure incomes. Even among graduates of top-tier institutions, the earnings came in well below the million-dollar mark, he says.

Another estimate puts the gap at more like $450,000.

So the answer to "whither higher education" remains a resounding "yes" with an exclamation point.  But not a "yes" with two exclamation points.