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The UnCollege Blog

The Reality of College Statistics

By Ilana Sawyer (2014 Fellow)

The New York Times recently published a high-profile article claiming that, on average, people who graduate from college earn half a million dollars more over their lifetimes than people who do not graduate from college. But it’s not that straightforward.

In this study, “graduate from college” is defined as having graduated from a conventional and accredited 4-year institution, with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. “Not graduate from college,” on the other hand, is a category that casts a far wider net. Holders of associate degrees and community college degrees, for example, are not a part of the demographic of “college graduates” guaranteed a lucrative life. Neither are vocational and trade school graduates.

Inflating Education

According to this theory, to be relatively successful and not be out of half a million dollars:

  • You must go to high school. “Thirteen years of traditional schooling is indisputable,” says Leonhardt, the author of the NYT article.
  • You must attend a four-year college. Leonhardt asserts: “The wage premium for people who have attended college without earning a bachelor’s degree — a group that includes community-college graduates — has not been rising. The big economic returns go to people with four-year degrees.”
  • You must graduate. This is easier said than done. Finances, health, family, and many other factors can get in the way. “More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community- college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half.”

And yet: “15 to 17 years” is the “universal goal [for education]”, says Leonardt. College is now the new bar to aim for. But a two-year certification is considered subpar to the new standard of a four-year degree, and, as a base qualification, even a four-year certification is no longer special or impressive. Today, to stand out from the crowd, you need to go above and beyond basic higher education and invest in a graduate degree — a Master’s or a Doctorate — and pray that the extra costs pay off.

Education is inflating, but it’s not doing it on its own. Inflation is an illusion of value, established upon mutual consent. We cannot raise the value of the object without collective validation of its worth. A high school or college education is worth whatever we make it worth.

The Financial Variable

And today, college is quoted as being worth a lot. The average debt of a graduate of a 4-year college is “$25,000, a sum that is a tiny fraction of the economic benefits of college,” says Leonhardt. That number might not shake some people, but to many, that tiny fraction is the fissure that cracks their college dreams. Debt is relative; there are people who struggle just as much with a figure with fewer zeroes, and plenty of people owe much more.

Proportionally, though, the situation and its implications are the same for these people overwhelmed with debt; finance is the number one factor responsible for the staggering college drop-out rate. Another NY Times article explains: “If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores.”

So “college” is only securing a small population of people stable well-paying jobs, and even their earnings, though higher than those of others, have declined in the past 14 years.

No Guarantees

Though a small minority of college graduates might do alright, everyone else enrolled in college is working towards a certification that likely won’t ever pay for itself — if they can even afford to stay on campus long enough to actually graduate. These unfavorable odds are the reason that many people opt out of going to college to begin with.

Even if you do everything you’re supposed to, there are so many variables at play, many of which you can’t control... The influence of any one of them can void the value of college for you.

You Determine Your Success

What you can control are your intrinsic characteristics — work ethic, patience, ambition, resilience, etc. — that you bring to college or any other environment. These factors and what you choose to do with them determine your success. You can succeed or fail at many things whether you attend or don’t attend college.

So if your only strategy for success is to go to college and get a degree, you’re in for a big surprise come graduation. You will have a lot more control over your success if you focus on growing as a person — developing your attitude and gaining skills. Be autonomous, train yourself, learn from the people around you, and immerse yourself in your career and in the world.

Defining Success

Just like college, this way of living may or may not lead you to the kind of success defined in the New York Times article. It is important to realize that this analysis refers to a specific definition of success, one that is attainable by only a small number of people in the world. More importantly, it is one that is desired by only by a small number of people in the world.

There are infinite definitions of success. You, as an individual, have the freedom to create your own vision for yourself and your future.