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Brookings Agrees With CEPR: Sometimes College Doesn't Pay

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Written by Dean Baker   
Monday, 13 May 2013 13:17

It's always nice when other scholars reach conclusions similar to those in CEPR's work. For this reason it was good to see Brookings publish a paper by Stephanie Owen and Isabelle Sawhill questioning whether everyone benefits from going to college. The paper noted that there was a substantial overlap between the earnings distribution for people with just a high school degree and those with college degrees. Specifically, they pointed out that 14 percent of workers with just a high school degree earned more the median college graduate.

This is similar to the findings in a paper that CEPR published with the Center for American Progress two and a half years ago. That paper, by John Schmitt and Heather Boushey, called attention to the large dispersion in earnings among men at all education levels. As a result of this dispersion, almost 20 percent of male college graduates between the ages of 25-34 earned less that the average male with just a high school degree in 2009.

This could help to explain why there has been little increase in college enrollment rates among men over the last three decades in spite of a sharp increase in the college premium. The marginal college student (a person debating whether or not it makes sense for him to go to college) may think it is likely that he could end up in this 20 percent who earn less than the average high school grad. This means that he will have foregone the opportunity to work full-time for four years, and incurred considerable expenses associated with college, yet have little to show for it in terms of a higher paycheck. Given these facts, it is not surprising that many men who graduate high school opt not to go to college.

It's good to see that Brookings' researchers are finding a similar story. If we want to get more people to attend college it will be necessary to have either a surer payoff for those who complete their degree and/or lower costs for attending college. Given the current situation, for many men it probably does not pay to attend college. 

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