A Way to Help Students Figure Out if College Is Worth the Expense

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Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom in America was that college was worth it. Period. College grads earned way more than did people without such credentials, so it was a no-brainer. Enroll in college, borrow as much as needed, and later the rewards will roll in.

Within the last decade or so, Americans have begun to doubt the old conventional wisdom. It has become apparent that college credentials don’t magically lead to high-paying jobs. Lots of graduates wind up doing jobs they could have done while still in high school, weighed down by the money they borrowed for credentials that turned out to have little value. And sometimes the fault lies in the student himself, having coasted through college having fun and accumulating easy credits.

To help students decide whether college is worth it or not, a group called Third Way has recently released a “mapping tool” meant to assist students, and, in today’s Martin Center article, Chris West takes a look at it.

West writes, “The tool is equipped with an interactive map, clear explanations of the authors’ methodology, and a number of helpful comparative data dashboards. Their simple formula calculates a ‘price-to-earnings premium,’ i.e., how many years it takes the average student from a given institution to recoup their educational costs.”

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He used it to see what it said about a range of colleges and universities in North Carolina, ranging from community colleges to prestige universities. Some of the best value is found in community colleges, although not all are. The state’s major universities appear to have reasonable paybacks.

Students shouldn’t treat this tool as proof of anything though. West notes its limitations. “Another important consideration to keep in mind is that this tool does not account for the opportunity costs of earning a degree. These institutions take anywhere from two to four years to earn a credential, a time during which students are generally either unemployed or significantly underemployed,” he notes.

I would add that averages can always be deceiving. Just because the average graduate of College X recoups his investment in Y years doesn’t mean that you will.

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