Don’t Go to College Unless You’re Going to Graduate

Valuable learning at University of Pennsylvania Relay Races on April 26, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Snyder’s of Hanover

Dylan Matthews has a nice piece on how, yes, despite the high price college is still worth it. But there’s a caveat near the end of the piece that I think needs to be highlighted much more clearly:

And a caveat is in order that ROI as used above doesn’t adjust for graduation rates. These are the returns for those who go and graduate, not the (many) who drop out midway through. Then again, in 2011 PayScale accounted for that, and actually didn’t find any schools with negative ROIs. SCAD even had a positive one. That casts some doubt on the reliability of the data being used to make these judgments, if they change that dramatically from 2011 to 2013, but it also suggests that the graduation rate issue doesn’t change the overall story.

That’s all well and good. If you treat the statistical risk of dropping out of college as a kind of random variable, then the dropout-adjusted return on investment of paying college tuition is still positive. But going to college isn’t a passive investment like buying a four-year bond. You are actively engaged in attending college, doing the work, and getting your degree.

And this is the thing you have to think about as an individual. If you go, are you likely to graduate? Have you researched the graduation rates at the schools you’re considering attending? And as a social and public policy matter, this is the margin that matters most. If some large fraction of the sort of people who are currently likely to attend college but not graduate could be pushed into graduating instead, it seems like the gains could be large. But if some large fraction of the sort of people who are currently unlikely to enroll in college are transformed into college dropouts, it seems like the gains will be nonexistent.

What’s more, the seeming presence of large “sheepskin effects”—getting a bachelor’s degree is worth much more than double what completing two years of college and then dropping out is worth—should make us wonder as a society about what’s going on. Obtaining a college degree appears in important ways to be valuable because it’s a reliable signal of diligence and conformity. As an individual, that’s just something you should know. But as a society, we should ask whether there isn’t some more cost-effective way young people can show that they’re willing and able to pursue multiyear projects.