"Is college worth it?" is a question overwhelmingly answered by people who went to college, as we saw once again this week. On Tuesday David Leonhardt (Yale '94) at The New York Times argued that college is overwhelmingly worth it, based on a new study that found college graduates make 98 percent more per hour than non-graduates. Matt Yglesias (Harvard '03) at Vox countered with maybe — the correlation between higher wages and degrees doesn't necessarily mean causation. In other words, "is college worth it?" articles tend to be thought experiments, usually from people who, at one four-year period in their lives, thought college was worth the cost.
The problem with "is college worth it?" stories is that data journalists don't offer enough context, and trend piece writers are often writing for wealthy, mostly white families — not the people who see college as a chance for social mobility. As the last four years of college valuation journalism shows, college is worth it for most people, as long as you major in something useful, get a job, and aren't too poor to graduate.
The New Yorker, June 2010
This is the epitome of the flowery college cost trend piece (note that most the pieces on this list come out during the spring graduation season). Getting a math-related degree, especially an economics degree, will get you a job. Philosophy, not so much.
When is college not worth it? If you want to be the next Steve Jobs. Politicians might also consider skipping college, since "having spent excessive hours in seminar rooms and libraries is widely regarded as a liability." Then again, the example of a politician hampered by degrees is Barack Obama.
Pew Research, May 2011
"An overwhelming majority of college graduates—86%—say that college has been a good investment for them personally," according to a Pew survey. Most people correctly assumed college graduates were making about $20,000 more a year than those without degrees.
When is college not worth it? "Among adults ages 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor’s degree, two-thirds say a major reason for not continuing their education is the need to support a family."
The New York Times' Economix blog, May 2011
This Times piece gives a general overview of college worthiness data. College graduates have lower unemployment rates and make more money. Only 4 percent of graduates regret going to college.
When is college not worth it? If you're that 4 percent.
The New York Times' The Choice blog, March 2013
Dale J. Stephens, the leader of the UnCollege social movement, went to college and didn't like it. "There is a community of people who are making a different choice," he wrote. "They are traveling, volunteering, interning and apprenticing."
When is college not worth it? Your parents are well off — or died and left you a lot of money so you can spend it to travel, volunteer for free, intern for free or become an apprentice.
The Huffington Post, May 2013
Companies love creating college ROI reports in the hopes that journalists will pick them up. PayScale.com's 2013 list of worst ROIs included little-known colleges with dismal (under 40 percent) graduation rates, high school fees, and a tendency to send people into lower paying professions.
When is college not worth it? If you took out $114,000 in loans to major in religious studies at Valley Forge Christian College.
The Economist, April 2014
The Economist profiled a student who earned a Spanish B.A., couldn't find a job, and went back to school for a finance degree. College was worth it for her. It's also worth it for engineers, in the sense that they make $500,000 to $1.1 million more than high school graduates.
When is college not worth it? If you get a humanities degree from a school no one has heard of you'll be worse off than someone who didn't go to college. "An arts degree from a rigorous school ... pays off handsomely," according to The Economist. "But an arts graduate from Murray State University in Kentucky can expect to make $147,000 less over 20 years than a high school graduate, after paying for his education."
Salon, February 2014
Matthew Saccaro, a college graduate, argued that you should just say no to college. "Attending college might be the worst decision you can make as a young adult in America," he writes. "You’re paying for nothing that you can’t get elsewhere for less money or free, save for the piece of paper with a con man’s signature on it."
When is college not worth it? Always. The fact that most journalism internships require college enrollment or a degree doesn't mean Saccaro's degree helped him in his journalism career.
FiveThirtyEight, May 2014
FiveThirtyEight makes a few key points — people from advantaged backgrounds are much more likely to go to college. It's students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have trouble finishing a degree. Enrolling in school and not finishing, especially if you take out loans, is worse than not enrolling at all.
When is college not worth it? If you drop out because you can't afford to finish school.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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