Is College Worth It? Non-Grads Say Yes

(Photo: Will Folsom)

Notwithstanding the ongoing controversy over rising college tuition costs, there’s one group of people who think that college is worth the cost: people who haven’t gone. Catherine Rampell of Economix blogs about a new survey of recent high school graduates:

Seven in 10 of these recent graduates said they would need more education if they were to have a successful career. Despite their belief in the value of post-secondary education, though, only 38 per cent definitely planned to attend college to get more education in the next five years. Barriers included skyrocketing tuitions and family obligations.

Many of the respondents felt differently at the start of high school — 35 per cent thought they would “definitely” go to college and 28 percent believed they would “probably” go.  Minority students were even more optimistic at the start of high school:

Among blacks and Hispanics who were recent high school graduates without bachelor’s degrees, nearly half — 47 percent — said that when they began high school they had “definitely” expected to go to college eventually. Another 22 percent said they had thought they “probably” would enroll in college.


I teach mathematics as an adjunct faculty at a college in downtown Chicago. What I have seen is terrible and completely demoralizing. 60 year old women coming in not knowing how to add fractions. Students needing calculators to compute 2*2. So I wonder, is college really the best choice for them? In this country, college is shoved down kids throats as early as 8 years old. College is not a necessary condition for success. A good plumber or electrician can make up $100/hour! You know how much I make after 6 years of undergraduate and graduate education? Barely $45.

I would like to add that education, however, is very important for success. But it doesn't have to lie in a college education, it can be a trade school instead. Learning a skill for which there is always a need (oh no, how am I going to unclog these pipes that my hair has managed to clog up AGAIN??? My plumber makes a lot of money off of me) is a much better career path for many students. These are highly respectable occupations and there will always be job market for them. And you know that best of all of this? Schooling costs next to nothing for these programs, meaning less debt. You can start earning money much sooner (hello early retirement), and you have tremendous job security and entrepreneurship opportunities.

But people always want what they don't have.



This has been a popular theory lately, and while I agree that college tuition has skyrocketed and it may someday become preferable to go the trade school route, the current anecdotally based argument isn't up-to snuff.

Firstly, while a plumber may earn $100/working hour, in general, he/she isn't making the same totally yearly salary of a white-collar professional. Secondly, he has very little room for growth as he has only so many hours in the day to work. This leads to the most important reason for secondary education, to provide OPTIONS for one's self for remainder of one's life.

Rarely does an 18 year old know what he/she wants to do for the rest of his/her life, a college education ensures that all doors remain open, this is why it is has been the most desirable choice and it's cost has greatly exceeded inflation

Skip Montanaro

> ... it may someday become preferable to go the trade school route ...

I wonder what fraction of students who don't enter college actually go the trade school route to acquire the post-secondary skill set almost everybody seems to agree is required for financial success (or at least financial security). My fear is that while we talk about "vocational school as an alternative to a college education," I suspect that many/most who don't go to college also don't go to any sort of post-secondary trade school.


Surveys show that people with college degrees, and people without college degrees, both report valuing a college degree. What can we conclude from that?

Likely, this survey results – to some extent -- reflect people’s actual experience living with or without a college degree. Let me concede that up front.

But other dynamics are at play as well. Some people got degrees and now conclude that it wasn’t worth the time and money. Others didn’t get degrees and now wish they had. On a superficial level, these dynamics seem symmetric. But the salience of these issues for grads and non-grads will be different, and will bias the population to validate the value of a college degree.

The survey results likely also reflect confirmation bias. People tend to look for reasons to justify past decisions; the bigger the decision/sacrifice, the greater the tendency to look for justification. People who invested time and money in a college degree have a strong psychological incentive to report that the investment was justified. People who refrained from making such an investment have sacrificed less, and therefore have less of an incentive to justify their choices. Moreover, some people who have not gone to college have not CHOSEN to forsake college; they have merely not gone to college YET. These people have even less psychological investment in saying that college is not worth the bother.

The survey results may also reflect a sense that the grass is always greener. People without a college degree who can’t find work (or a date) can always assume that a college degree would have made all the difference. People who have a college degree and STILL can’t find a job (or date) can’t make that assumption. Sure, these grads may conclude that college was not worth the cost. But if you’re underemployed and lonely, this fact will be the centerpoint of your emotional life, and you will likely be obsessed with things that will help change this fact. Non-grads can still choose to pursue a college education, so that option features large in their emotional lives. In contrast, grads lack the power to undue their choice to get a degree, so this fact is less salient to their emotional lives.

In sum, the asymmetric aspects of these emotional issues will tend to bias what people will report on a survey. (Yes, I know, I write like a college grad; sue me.)



I agree with your statement about the grass always being greener on the other side as well as a bit of a biased opinion towards grads who think it is a good investment and nongrads who are happy with the choices that they have made.

I would like to point out, however, that there are many occupations out there that are very lucrative and do not require a college education. My point is merely that we need to change the general perception about college, and to send students to those areas that suit them best. Why exactly does one need a college degree to wire a house? Or paint something? You don't. Society has completely overhyper the whole concept of a college education. I think what people really want is to be a "college kid", meaning, that they can get drunk and not go to class etc. So, I don't think that these people seek a college education as much as they seek the college life style.


alex in chicago

How many of these non college grads under-performed in high school? Probably a high % of them, that's why they never went to college. Then, when they continue to under-perform in the workplace not going to college is an easy scapegoat.

Simple, logical, Occam's Razor.

Eric M. Jones.

I graduated college with a 4.0 BAC.

Twenty years ago, an old friend of mine, having nothing to do and being bored, decided to start a UNIVERSITY. He put an ad in the paper to find people who wanted to teach courses, advertised in the newspapers and rented classrooms from the local high school. He ran it for several years before he got bored and decided to do something else.

caleb b

Law school is not worth it (in aggregate).

Enter your name...

I suspect that people without college degrees know something that the rest of us don't notice: the number of job postings that require a degree before they'll even talk to you.

I have a relative who did fraud work for his employer. He turned out to have a real aptitude for it. Someone actually went to prison as a result of the accounting fraud he uncovered. His list of employment references included one of his contacts at the FBI. But when he went looking for a new job, doing what he'd successfully done for years, everyone said, "You can't do that. You don't even have a four-year degree, and we think that only people with MBAs can figure out when businesses are being billed for services they're not receiving."

Enter your name...

I've been thinking about non-completers recently, and I wonder how many people who didn't finish college would be eligible for a two-year degree based on the coursework they've already done. "I have an A.S." is much more impressive and useful for employment (and non-expiring) than "I went to college for a while, but didn't finish."

Dr TocToc

Their opinion does not prove anything. If college students tell you that their grad education was not worth the investment, what conclusion would we draw?

mo the specialist

It all depends on the job market they got a degree in...If they get a degree in a specific industry such as art or literature, of course it will be tough for them find a job because these career fields are saturated.

However, if they got a medical degree, they're more likely to find gainful employment because the world is short of doctors, dentists, nurses, etc.

Furthermore, if a person cannot find a job, they may not be applying themselves properly. Straight up, some people are lazy and use their "worthless degree" as an excuse for not doing what it takes to survive.


As somebody who dropped out of college and went back to get a degree in economics, this hits pretty close to home for me. Please forgive the oversimplification of the model, but it works well for illustrative purposes

Looking back on the salary (45k) I was making and my rate of growth in wages (0.2%), I was hitting the top of my potential prior to going back to school.

After re-entering the job market, I immediately saw my self in higher demand and earning well over 150% of my previous salary, with a growth rate at approximately 5%. At the same time, my costs were three years of tuition, and reduced earnings (around (30% less) over the same period (despite the fact I had no real loss of utility, as my needs were provided for adequately by a reduced cost of living resulting from moving from a major metropolitan area to a college town)

Taking these into account, I should have my 30k student loans re-paid in 5-6 years (if not sooner) and will have recouped my lost wages in 6 years, meaning everything going forward is pure surplus for me.

Breaking out the math:
Old Salary: Y=45,000* 1.002^X
New Salary (First Six Years): Y = 68000*1.05^X - ((1/6)*(75,000)
New Salary (After Six Years): Y = 68000*1.05^X

In this case, both the increased growth rate and drastically improved starting position meant it made much more sense to leave the work force for three years and go back to college.



The most frustrating thing about these generic "is college worth it" surveys is that there is no adjustment for type of degree. I think my degrees in computer science and mathematics are worth it, but it probably would not be worth getting into tens of thousands of dollars of debt for a degree in English or history.


I am a college professor. My subject matter is philosophy. The biggest problem is the lack of critical thinking skills. More and more I see students who are not able to draw analogies, ask relevant questions, apply what they are learning. Nor are they able to recognize and construct arguments. One of the standard responses I receive to the question "What is philosophy?" is "It's what you believe." No! Save I BELIEVE for church (or temple, or mosque or what-have-you). I think of all this is a direct result of a focus on the "teaching-to-the-test" model. A gaffe like that of Rick Perry when he couldn't remember a 'key' part of his policy is what you will see more and more if we continue down this path.


Post secondary education used to be a competitive advantage - now it's just a qualifier. You won't land a single job without at least one degree, so whether it's worth it or not is no longer the question. A degree is now practically REQUIRED just to get your foot in the door.

I HATE when people bring up anecdotes of people who have been successful without a college education. Those people are the exception, not the rule.

Joe J

Degrees are "required" mainly due to 'discrimination lawsuits'. If a company doesn't hire a someone, they can and might be sued. So the company needs to be able to prove why. It can't be because the other candidate was better, or passed job competency tests. Since the company sets up those tests the company could rig them to be discriminatory. It must be because of some "arbitrary" metric that that company did not set up. College degrees are the current default for that metric. So we have many jobs that require a degree that have nothing to do with a degree. To protect the company from lawsuits from the hundred people who weren't hired.