Lifetime earnings boost from college education smaller than touted

Post-college earning less than you thinkThe Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell this week, noting with little fanfare (subscription required) that the college degrees we're told are a ticket to wealth and happiness aren't all they've been cracked up to be.

The College Board, a glorified trade group representing the interests of colleges and universities, has long touted an $800,000 lifetime earnings advantage for college grads. Now other researchers, armed with more rigorous data, are suggesting that the lifetime earnings advantage of college may be less -- a lot less. Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research calculated that the lifetime earnings advantage of a college degree is just $279,893.

According to the Journal, "A College Board spokeswoman says it doesn't have a record of when the content was written and that "it's possible that during an update of the content the writer misinterpreted the data within the report." She also says the text represented old data and reflected "a different methodology." The $800,000 figure was removed from its Web site in December, once the group learned of the error, she says."

You have to love that: a trade group that represents the college industry tells people for years that college graduates earn $800,000 more than non-graduates. Then, when it turns out that number is actually roughly twice the actual figure, it just deletes it from the site without notice and without apology to anyone who was duped by it.

Worse, the research investigating the relationship between education and earnings power has a hard time controlling for selection bias: does the fact that college graduates are usually smarter, more ambitious, and come from background more conducive to financial success than non-college graduates account for at least part of the difference in earnings? Of course, but since people aren't lab rats, it's hard to quantify exactly how much.

Before you toss college aside altogether, consider also that a college degree sharply reduces your odds of unemployment. As the New York Times recently reported, "The unemployment rate for high school dropouts is 15.3 percent; the unemployment rate for college graduates is 5 percent."

The important thing to remember though, is this: the highest returns from attending college come from attending college -- the marginal return of attending one college versus another is much, much lower.

If you do two years at a community college and then transfer to a public college, working part-time to avoid accumulating student loan debt, your return on investment is likely to be quite satisfactory, and without the risk that comes with large amounts of debt.

Zac Bissonnette's book College on a Dime will be published by Portfolio in the fall.
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