Perhaps you aren’t homo economicus, and don’t primarily use cost-benefit analysis to make decisions about your life or your child’s. But everyone wants to be happy, and wants their child to be happy as well. So let’s look at the happiness effects of college.
People who go to college are slightly likelier to report that they are happy about their lives than those who don’t go to college. In 2011, researchers found that 89 percent of high-school graduates who did not attend college said they were happy or very happy, compared with 94 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders.
This is correlation, of course, and it is not at all clear in the scholarly literature that education causes greater happiness. Some scholars have found that, when controlling for other factors in life such as income and religious faith, education by itself has no independent explanatory power over happiness. Some actually believe that education is negatively linked to happiness, and hypothesize that some college attendees trade ambition for life satisfaction. The bottom line is that the case is not closed here.
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And there’s all that student debt to consider. According to a Gallup study from 2014, student debt is negatively correlated with financial and physical health and sense of purpose, and is associated with lower well-being on these dimensions for as long as 25 years after graduation. Again: That’s correlation, not causation. But it is easy to imagine how $393 per month (the average student-loan payment) could dampen one’s spirits even in service of a career you love, let alone one you don’t.
The evidence on the economic and happiness benefits of college is mixed. The only thing we can say with assurance is, “It depends.” On what? On the unique attributes of each person. Just as no one actually has 2.5 kids, averages don’t help much in figuring out the particulars of one person’s life. A child’s gifts, circumstances, and career ambitions all affect whether college is the right choice. Most of all, it depends on what they want to do. As a longtime academic, I can assure you that the No. 1 predictor of a failure to thrive in college is not wanting to be there in the first place.
That may be obvious to would-be students, but to many of their parents it isn’t. The college decision is often as much about the parents as it is about their kids. Tisha Duncan, a professor and college adviser, told Alia Wong for a piece in The Atlantic, “Instead of students announcing, ‘I got into college!,’ the parents are announcing, ‘We got into college!’” It’s easy to project our own desires onto our kids—to try to see our own potential come alive through them.
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But it’s a mistake. No one can build a life alone—we all need help—but in the end, our lives are our own. I remember making this case to my own parents at 19, when I told them I was going to drop out of college to go on tour as a classical musician. My wife, who grew up in poverty, made the same case to her parents when she dropped out of school to sing in a rock band. In both our cases, we completed our education later in life, but there was no guarantee at the time that we ever would. These were decisions that were staunchly opposed by our parents. Our son, wily devil that he is, reminded us of all this when he told us he didn’t want to go to college. He had us dead to rights.