NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

High-Profile Studies Overrate Going to College and Picking the Right Major

January 7, 2013

After high school, students all across the country decide on whether they should pursue higher education. A majority of students end up going to college because of the overwhelming data in support of getting an advanced degree, say Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Abigail Haddad, a Ph.D. student at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Because of the perceived benefits associated with getting a college degree, many people call on the government to make college financially feasible to people of all income levels. The problem with the data that supports an increase in government aid is that it conflates going to college with graduating from college.

  • Federal aid for college has already reached $65 billion in 2011 and continues to grow.
  • In addition, the government has given out $100 billion in subsidized loans for students to pursue higher education.
  • However, only 58 percent of new college students that started in 2004 ended up graduating in six years.
  • This is problematic because many of these students end up having significant debt while earning less than a college graduate does.

In addition, data that supports higher earnings with a college degree often overlook other factors that have more of an impact on lifetime earnings. For example, high school students that scored better on math tests, came from better income families, or were even in better physical or mental health, were more likely to have higher earnings than their peers.

Similarly, the data on what the best college majors are in terms of employment and income are also suspect. For example, there is a correlation between high SAT scores and students choosing to enter science or engineering and students with low SAT scores choosing other low-paying majors. However, SAT scores correlate with higher incomes regardless of the college major chosen.

Source: Andrew G. Biggs and Abigail Haddad, "High-Profile Studies Overrate Going to College and Picking the Right Major," The Atlantic, December 17, 2012.


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