Monday, April 24, 2006

Should You Even Go to College?

Today, Arnold Kling argues that too many students go to college:

I believe that too many college students are not emotionally ready for the experience. They go because their peers and their parents expect them to go. Their parents expect them to go because their parents' peers expect their children to go.


College is a highly unnatural setting. Students do not have to shop for food, worry about budgets for entertainment, or face consequences for behavior that is irresponsible if not downright illegal. Instead of learning life skills, they are learning escape-from-life skills.

This article in Forbes also tries to shift in the demand curve for college education. They focus on the many successful people (e.g., Bill Gates) who didn't compete college and various economic research that suggests that college only increases your earnings because of its value as a signal of ability:

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that what really matters is how smart you are, not where -- or even if -- you went to school. According to a number of studies, small differences in SAT scores, which you take before going to college, correlate with measurably higher incomes. And, according to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the lifetime income of high-school dropouts is directly associated with their scores on a battery of intelligence tests.

So is college a big waste? Could we do just as well with an alternative arrangement (e.g., some combination of suped-up community colleges and an ability certification service -- like the Harvard College Admissions Committee)?

Certainly, college is neither necessary or sufficient to guarantee individual success, and many students who enroll in college are not ready to be there and fail to get as much out of college as they could. Further, it is possible that we might be able to devise an alternative system which works better then our current one. However, when evaluating recommendations we don't ask are there some people who are made worse off by the recommendation. Rather, we try and figure out, on average, if there is a positive net effect. As yet, I unaware of any study which decisively estimates the causal effect of a college education (much less one that suggests that it is zero). So I am going to stick with the standard advice -- go to college. College, hopefully, provides you with general skills (writing, math, reasoning, and social) that are difficult to acquire outside of formal learning environments and without intensive study.

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