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Why We Still Think College Isn't for Everyone

A graduate cheers during the Berklee College of Music commencement in Boston, Massachusetts (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi).

Is a college degree worth it? Not for everyone, according to our newly-released Center on Children and Families policy brief. The value of a college degree can vary dramatically, depending on factors such as field of study, type of college, graduation rate and future occupation. Here’s our final follow-up blog post, where we take a closer look at the conclusions we come to in the brief. (Read the firstsecond, and third parts here.)

Last week, the Center on Children and Families released a policy brief on making smarter decisions about higher education. We have welcomed the ensuing spirited debate from policymakers, students, colleges, and fellow researchers. The title of our policy brief, “Should Everyone Go To College,” is intentionally provocative and was chosen to start a conversation around the question. In favor of simplicity, we used the blanket term “college” to argue that a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree is not for everyone. We do think that some sort of postsecondary training is a good idea for almost everyone. This includes associate’s degrees, technical and vocational certification, apprenticeships, and worker training programs.

Some suggest that encouraging marginal students to pursue some of these non-academic paths creates a tracked system that keeps low-income and minority kids out of the upper echelons of our society. For that reason, vocational education has largely fallen out of favor in the United States, but gaps in academic performance between rich and poor and blacks and whites have persisted or, in the case of income, even grown. Closing these gaps has been one goal of the research done by the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, and we agree strongly that more needs to be done to prepare students to be college ready at the end of secondary school. But for the students we focus on in our brief—teenagers and young adults planning their educational and career paths—it is often too late to make up this lost ground.

The goal should be to help them make the choices that will turn out best for them given their individual strengths at the end of high school. For a student who has performed poorly in the classroom, the most bang-for-the-buck may come from a vocationally-oriented associate’s degree or career-specific technical training or from a period of work before returning to school with stronger motivation to learn what academic institutions teach. Think of the alternative: this student’s poor grades and possible ambivalence about classroom learning means he is likely to never finish his degree, and will have wasted time and money that could have been spent learning an employable skill. On the other hand, there are plenty of low-income students who are smart enough to succeed in college but who tend to choose schools that are beneath their ability and are more likely to drop out. The correlations of family background with college entry, persistence, and graduation have been rising, meaning it is especially important to help low-income students with the requisite abilities and preparation to enroll in a high-quality institution. Those individuals could benefit from better information about financial aid, graduation rates, and expected earnings.

Unfortunately, that information is not currently available: no one single comprehensive dataset containing information on earnings by school (let alone by major or program) exists. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which we mention in our brief, has bipartisan support and would be an improvement on the status quo. The PayScale dataset we used for our brief has significant limitations, including questions about the reliability of its calculations and its representativeness.

Finally, some have rightly pointed out that our findings are descriptive, and should not necessarily be interpreted causally. It is likely true that smarter students self-select into engineering majors, so not every student will do better if she studies engineering rather than English. The same logic applies to more selective schools: part of why students at elite schools do better later on is that they are more talented before they ever enter college. Even so, careful economic research suggests that students do best when they attend the best school they can get in to, and that certain majors have real benefits.

Ultimately, higher education decisions are made by individual students and their families, and are based on their unique interests, strengths, and personal values, not only income and career prospects. Students need to have realistic expectations about what they’re likely to get out of pursuing higher education. Rigorous economic research has found that there is a sizeable proportion of people who experience a negative return to their education. That doesn’t mean they may not excel at other pursuits. It just means that one size doesn’t fit all high school students.