For some parents, tough deliberations may be in order, Capelli says. “Sometimes you just have to say college is not right for my kid now,” says Cappelli. “You never have to say it’s not right for my kid ever. You can always go back to college. Sometimes the personal maturity or motivation isn’t there and a lot of kids benefit from taking a year off before starting. Going to college too soon can be an expensive experiment to run.”
Cappelli points to the near obsession of sending students to college with disregard for their readiness as a large factor in the low graduation rates. “The U.S. seems to send more kids to college than any other country and has the worst graduation rates. The rates are about seven times worse than the rest of the developed world,” he says.
THE FINAL ANSWER?
So does college pay off? For some, yes; for others, no.
“The figure everybody kicks around is that the average college graduate earns about 60% more than a high school graduate, which is true,” explains Cappelli. “But the assumption they are making is the kids who don’t go to college would do just as well (if they did go) as the kids who actually go to college. But the kids who succeed and have that salary gap are systematically different. They usually have more support and are more academically able.”
Cappelli says just because the college graduates are there doesn’t mean the jobs will be. “College graduates are taking jobs high school graduates could take,” he says. “This also explains why the wage premium has grown. Wages for high school graduates have fallen through the floor. One of the famous positions is a legal secretary, which now requires a college degree but never required it before. There’s also baristas. A University of Wisconsin study looked at parking lot attendants who had been to college. You see it all over.”
Cappelli very much believes in the power and value of a college degree—as long as things go according to plan.
“It’s true that you would be better off with a college degree. But that assumes you either have the money to pay for it or will make enough money to pay it off. It assumes you can get into college, graduate, and then get a job to pay for it all. And those are all very much assumptions.”
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