Face to Face with Inequality

Is It Worth It?

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Freakonomics has two related podcasts on the benefit (part I) and the cost (part II) of going to college, and it comes to the conclusion that, yes, it is totally worth it. Every year of education adds 8% to your income every year, so those 4 years of college would result in 32% additional income every year. People with more education retire later, meaning that the years in college with little to no income are canceled out on the back end. (This is not to speak of the fact that people with more education are happier and healthier, presumably because their work is not nearly so unbearable.) In other words, higher education turns out not to be too expensive, after all, right?

Well, maybe not. Steve Dubner doesn’t dwell on this, but he’s undoubtedly reporting averages. And when you think about that, you have to figure that some people get a lot more return on their education than 8% per education year for every year they work. And others get less. What if you’re in a not-so-economically-viable major in a below-average school in a geography with below-average employment opportunities? Is it still worth it then?

Another very reasonable question Dubner forgets to ask is whether it is reasonable for a college education to cost what it costs, considering the social benefit we all derive from having a population of people ready to do the work that needs doing. That the average college grad will see a reasonable return on his or her investment does not mean that it is “priced” correctly or fairly. In fact, the cost of higher education is thoroughly irrational, especially in view of the fact that it is not entirely clear what creates the value. Is it what you learn? Is it just the piece of paper–the reputation of the degree? Is it the network you become part of?

About 20 years ago, I taught at Chicago State University–an institution where the question of whether it is worth it should be very seriously considered by all prospective applicants–nearly all my students said that, if given the option, they would buy their degree outright and skip the bit about learning. At the time, this merely struck me as a very sad commentary on the quality of the education that lay within their reach, and I gave it up and lit out for the territories as soon as I could. Now I fear they understood something about the real world which I was way too naive to appreciate.


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