The “college premium” has been exaggerated by high-profile studies, write Andrew G. Biggs and Abigail Haddad in The Atlantic. So has the payoff for majoring in a STEM field.
Smarter people are more likely to earn a college degree and to major in engineering, science and math, they write.
Only 58 percent of new college students who began in 2004 had graduated six years later, according to federal data. “Dropout rates are even higher at less selective colleges, whose students are presumably most on the margin between attending college following high school and entering the workforce.”
Calculating returns to education only for those who attend college and graduate is like measuring stock returns for Google while ignoring those for General Motors.
High school students who go on to college are quite different from those go directly to the workforce, they write.
(The collegebound) took a more rigorous high school curriculum, scored better on tests of reading and math, came from higher-income families, were in better physical and mental health, and were less likely to have been arrested. These are all correlated with higher earnings regardless of whether a person attends college . . .
Controlling for “both the risk of not graduating from college and differing personal characteristics” cuts the “earnings boost attributable to college attendance” in half, write Biggs and Haddad.
Graduates in technical fields earn significantly more than graduates in “softer” majors, studies have shown. “High school graduates aiming for high-earning majors such as engineering enter college with higher average SAT scores, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while those aiming for lower-paying majors have lower average SAT scores,” write Biggs and Haddad. “High-paying jobs also entail longer work hours.”