Is college worth it?

Jobs of the future will require greater skills, but not necessarily a degree

Christophe Vorlet for The Boston Globe

AMERICA’S COLLEGES and universities must be delighted with yet another study proving just how valuable they are. With tuitions at some elite places soaring above $60,000 a year, higher ed needs such studies as rebuttals to increasingly skeptical students and their parents.

Students and parents should keep being skeptical.

The latest comes from Pew Research, and its title drives home the point: “The rising cost of not going to college.” The numbers seem compelling and especially for the millennial generation — those now ages 25 to 32. For example, millennials with a college degree have median annual earnings of $17,500 more than those with just high school degrees. Multiply that by a working lifetime of, say, 43 years, and you get a total difference of $752,500. Amazing, right?


Maybe. Remember, there’s a time value to money ($1 a year from now is worth less than $1 today), and when you run the numbers comparing the cost of college to that $752,500, you can generate what’s known as an internal rate of return. For a less expensive school such as UMass (about $69,000 for four years), the IRR is high – 25 percent. But for pricier places costing $240,000 or more, the return is just under 7 percent. That makes it worthwhile (especially in a world where interest rates are below 5 percent) but hardly staggering.

But to give college its due, where it does get amazing is when it comes to unemployment. Last month, for example, the unemployment rate of high school grads was 6.5 percent. The rate for college grads, on the other hand, was a low 3.2 percent. Moreover, the labor participation rate — that is, the number of folks who are part of the job market — is far higher for college versus high school grads: 58 percent versus 76 percent.


In other words, not only will college grads earn more, but they are likelier to be employed. And to be frank, that difference will only worsen. The jobs of the future will require even greater levels of skills. So college is critical, right?

Not necessarily. The problem with all of this is that it confuses correlation with causality. College doesn’t make you smart. Rather, smart people go to college. And it’s an important distinction.

What these numbers are really telling us is that the educated and smart make more than the uneducated and less smart. But being educated and smart is something that happens well before college. Some of it is the luck of the genetic draw. But much if not most is what happens from birth (or even before birth) through age 18. Nutrition, including prenatal, matters. The culture you’re raised in (particularly one that places a premium on learning and accomplishment) matters. Character, especially qualities such as grit and determination, matters. The stuff that happens before kindergarten, when the brain is rapidly developing, matters. (Disclosure: I work for a nonprofit focused on early childhood education.) K-12 education matters. Your peers and the adults around you matter.

And college? It’s the reward you get if you successfully navigate those first 18 years. Granted, college can be fun and interesting and can expand and refine your mind. But it’s hardly the only way to gain new skills and knowledge. Trade schools, work experience, online courses and just reading can do the trick as well.


Still, if you’re looking for a job, you’ll probably notice that great high school grades and all of the online courses in the world will often not get you a job. And that’s because many employers — especially those with high-skill, high-paying jobs — simply insist on a college degree. If you don’t have one, you won’t be considered.

The degree is a marker, a shorthand way of saying you’re smart and educated. And this is where colleges do have an edge. As we’ve seen from some much publicized cases of resume fraud, it really is the piece of paper — the diploma — that counts and not the learning itself.

Someday, and perhaps soon, that may change. Which is why even as they tout proof of their value, higher ed — especially the private schools that charge a premium — should be worried. Education matters, yes. But not necessarily a college education.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.