538: Collegiate Math

Do you consider a college degree “worth it”?


Full episode script

Full disclosure – I’m a college graduate with a 4-year degree (even though that’s a much longer-and-more-complex story than most want to hear.) For the last 30 years, the so-called Degree Premium has been used to market the value of a college degree. Quoting from the Washington Post:

That’s how much more a typical bachelor’s degree recipient earns compared with a high school graduate. And since the 1980s, the gap in earnings between the two has been getting wider as college graduates pull away from those with just a high school diploma.

But a new study of the degree premium, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finds that its growth has flattened in recent years. Since 2010, however, the premium has largely remained unchanged, said the report’s author, Robert G. Valletta of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. The “patterns indicate that the factors propelling earlier increases in the returns to higher education have dissipated,” Valletta wrote.

In September of 2017, the Wall Street Journal published a poll about college education, finding, quote:

Overall, a slim plurality of Americans, 49%, believes earning a four-year degree will lead to a good job and higher lifetime earnings, compared with 47% who don’t, according to the poll of 1,200 people taken Aug. 5-9. That two-point margin narrowed from 13 points when the same question was asked four years earlier.

There’s a fundamental conflict in the discussion of college education that seems to consistently come up  — what the purpose of a college education is. Some argue that the purpose is intellectual exploration and personal growth, a chance to explore and discover. Others measure the value of these choices in economic impact.

That economic impact also varies quite widely based on what kind of field and measure you’re looking at. A study by Georgetown University found that, quote:

At the low end, median earnings for Early Childhood Education majors are $36,000, while Petroleum Engineering majors see median earnings of $120,000.

That same study also found that there’s still a huge differential for women and individuals who are not white.

Then again, there’s more options than a high school degree and a four-year college degree. Harvard’s Joe Fuller and Burning Glass’s Matthew Sigelman authored a report on apprenticeships, finding that, quote:

20 percent to 80 percent of job postings ask for candidates with bachelor’s degrees, depending on the occupation, but a lot of those positions don’t actually require college experience. In other words, employers use college degrees as a proxy for a range of skills that can in fact be attained without a college degree. This practice is called degree inflation, and the result is that, depending on the occupation, “college graduates [will] find themselves recruited for jobs in which their colleagues don’t have degrees,” Fuller said, noting that those non-degreed colleagues were hired before such inflation became common practice. This educational-background difference “leads to [the college graduates having] higher turnover and [lower] job engagement than non-college graduates.”

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.