2013 April 29 Monday
Limited Value From Many College Degrees

Some college degrees have little or no value.

Not surprisingly, research has found that a degree from a name-brand elite college, whether it's Harvard, Stanford or Amherst, carries a premium for earnings. But the 50 wealthiest and most selective colleges and universities in the U.S. enroll less than 4% of students. For everyone else, the statistics show that choosing just any college, at any cost for a credential, may no longer be worth it.

The premium for an elite degree is exaggerated. A very large portion of the higher career achievement of graduates from top schools comes from the fact that the students were smart enough (and ambitious enough to position themselves) to get accepted. The Ivy League, Stanford, Duke admissions process is in part an IQ test and in part an ambition test. Of course outside of psychometrics departments they avoid all mention of IQ and innate abilities. The blank slate religion still reins. But innate differences in ability matter so much that the Ivy League looks hard to find people with higher ability who will succeed even without an Ivy education. These students make the value of Ivy look higher than it really is.

As for the top 50: That seems too high a number of schools to talk about as elite. I doubt the benefit goes that far down. Does going to school number 35 or 40 matter in any way except for saddling its graduates with lots of debt? I think the value of the second tier is greatly exaggerated by second tier university marketing departments.

While it probably makes sense to go to Harvard or Yale so what? So few can get into the very top schools (especially if you are a member of a discriminated against group) that discussions of the value of elite education are irrelevant to 95+% of high school students and to an even higher percentage of adults looking to improve their career prospects.

It makes far more sense for the vast majority of students to aim for accumulation of useful skills and other ways to demonstrate ability. For example, start taking online classes in high school and go to college summer school. Get your college degree a couple of years sooner and do it in a subject that has real market value. Or go for training and certifications in health care specialties that pay much better than the average 4 year degree. Search engines are your friends. Use them to find out what pays well. Then find something useful to learn.

I also think the value of internships, while rarely mentioned, is very high. For example, more engineering, math, and computer science students ought to apply for summer internships. Lots of companies will, given the chance to "try before you buy", take a student from a less prestigious school. The risks of the less prestigious degree are lowered when the student can get assessed over a few summer months. Plus, if you major in something useful you'll even get chosen for the internship over a Yale art history major or Princeton anthropology major. The companies need real work done.

The elite American colleges are increasingly like elite American international corporations. They are less about America or citizens and more about what helps their institutions compete globally. It is time to acknowledge the disconnect. For the vast majority of people reading these lines the elite schools are irrelevant. Find another path.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2013 April 29 11:55 PM 

George said at April 30, 2013 7:40 AM:

I would say elite admissions are part IQ test, part studiousness and industrious test, and part docility and conformity test, with IQ being perhaps the least important factor. Anyone who has dealt extensively with Ivy League graduates knows that, while smart, they are most of the time indistinguishable intellectually from other smart but not Ivy graduates. The average smart and well read person you know who didn't go to an Ivy will not strike you, even after prolonged comparison, as less intelligent than an Ivy graduate. And I say this as an Ivy graduate myself.

James Bowery said at April 30, 2013 5:07 PM:

Patents of nobility are unlawful. The ivy league should be burned to the ground.

asdf said at May 1, 2013 10:20 PM:

I went to Lehigh, which is something like mid 30s on the USNWR. Tuition + Room & Board was something like $50,000 a year. However, nobody pay that. Well, underachieving upper middle class people whose father buy them beamers pay that (and there were plenty), but if you were a regular bloke like me and had a good SAT score they gave you massive financial aid and scholarships. I believe my parents chipped in $10k/year (basically the room & board portion) and I took on the subsidized loans (a little less then $20k interest free) plus 8 hours a week at a very easy student work job thing that I could sit and do my homework at for $8/hour.

So basically your talking about paying $15k/year for a $50k/year school, over half of that being the cost of dorm and food. The cost difference between that and my local state school (which was less prestigious and well known as a pretty shitty college experience) was neglible. People shouldn't get spooked by sticker price on colleges. Only spoiled underperforming UPM kids pay that.

Check it out said at May 2, 2013 3:26 PM:

My advice to recent high-school graduates:

Start your own business or learn a trade right after you finish high school, like carpentry, plumbing or electricity. This way you'll be able to afford your home, car and perhaps family sooner than your classmates graduate from university or 4-year worthless colleges.

Dan said at May 2, 2013 10:55 PM:

You have to get a college degree now.


destructure said at May 3, 2013 3:29 PM:

Excellent post and comments.

I read an article a while back about a study comparing state schools to ivy league. Apparently, those with the same grades and test scores end up making similar money. Ivy made a little more at first but the gap closed after a few years.

SOME non-Ivies actually have higher acceptance rates to Ivies than undergrads of the Ivies themselves. That ought to tell you something. So it might be worth looking into one of those and then going to an Ivy for grad school.

I also agree that learning a trade and starting a business is a valid option. I view that as similar to state school vs ivy. A smart person who learns a trade and starts a business can probably make as much as they could had they gone to college. I know several tradesmen making 6 figures. I also know tradesmen who've started companies and made millions.

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