College for the (Older) Masses

May 4, 2015

Given that this piece was from the New York Times and I’d seen it floating around on Twitter with the quote pulled from the end:
Americans agree that "our kids" should go to college. The debate is really about who qualifies as "our kids."
I had fairly low expectations about how fairly and seriously it would take the arguments for “college isn’t for everyone.” It actually wasn’t that bad, giving a fair amount of space for paragraphs like this:
A question that has always hung over these findings is whether college itself deserves any credit for the patterns. You can imagine a scenario in which college graduates would thrive regardless of whether they went to college, because of their own skills and drives. By this same logic, helping more people become college graduates might not necessarily benefit them. But the new findings are the latest, and maybe strongest, reason to believe that college matters. Much as staying in high school is generally a better life strategy than dropping out, continuing on to college seems like the better plan for a great majority of students.
This is a theme that Dan has written about where if the main benefit from college is the signaling and access to the network, or the maturity from being several years older, and the education itself doesn’t make that much of a difference, then pouring more of our society’s resources into getting everyone through that program doesn’t actually benefit us very much.

It seems to me, though, that the main area this article needed to point out (and would have if someone like Megan McArdle/Ross Douthat/Reihan Salam had been its author) is that while it may be true that college is “the better plan for a great majority of students,” how large is the harm to those students for whom college is a risk that panned out poorly?

This is is an incomplete prescription:
The biggest problem with the colleges that marginal students attend, like Florida International and several state colleges in Georgia, is how many students fall down and don’t figure out a way to keep going. Dropout rates typically hover around 50 percent, which leaves students with the grim combination of debt and no degree. Reducing these rates could bring big economic benefits. Until that happens, some people have been left to wonder whether many teenagers should simply give up on the idea of college.
because you can reduce dropout rates both through helping struggling students more and having a stronger filter for incoming students in the first place.

An interesting way to test for this would be to have greater support for, say, people who are 25+ and getting their first degree than people who are 18. I generally think that like with healthcare, pushing the realizations of the true cost away from the consumer is a key driver of increasing prices, but I’d support experimenting with age-based (or work experience-based, if you were able to measure that—like, you’ve been supporting yourself and filing your own taxes for the last 7 years) funding.

Very few teenagers really understand the decisions they’re making when they go straight to college after spending the vast majority of their lives in a classroom, not like ye olde teenagers that have been working in full-time apprenticeships and such. So let’s try borrowing the idea of some gap years into our culture and see if it helps those that go to college get more out of it.