Society and Culture, Education

Does going to college = completing college?

Image Credit: shutterstock

Image Credit: shutterstock

Yesterday on Brookings’ “Mobility Memos” blog, I wrote about the relationship between postsecondary education and social mobility. The quick version: completing college has a large positive impact on your chances of making it out of the bottom income quintile, but that return is conditional on completing. And very few low-income people actually make it that far (somewhere between 9-15%). As such, our postsecondary system is an inefficient engine of social mobility. Today, I shared some solutions jumpstart the engine.

Yesterday, Pew released more research that highlights the importance of college completion. Titled “The Rising Cost of Not Going To College,” the report showed how millennials with a BA degree or above outperform their peers in every measure of labor market success, and that their advantage is larger than that for prior cohorts.

But look carefully at the graph and compare it to the title. Is it really showing the rising cost of not going to college? Not exactly. What the figure shows is the rising cost of not completing a bachelor’s degree or above. But the cost of “not going” has to reflect the outcomes of the folks on the brown line (those who started college and didn’t finish, and those who finished an associate’s degree). For the people in this category, the cost of “not going” (the gap between the brown and yellow lines) actually shrank over time, to the point that millennials with “some college, no degree” or an associate’s degree are now only out-earning their high school-educated peers by about $2,000.

The point? We can’t measure “the cost of not going to college” by looking only at the outcomes for those who finish a BA or above. Somewhere between 40 and 50% of those who start a college credential don’t finish one in six years, meaning that any return has to be weighted by this probability. As Pew points out, the premium for these non-completers has actually decreased over time.

To be sure, you’ve got to enroll to even have a chance of reaping the big payoff; but for the many students who don’t finish, simply going to college will entail high costs and shrinking benefits.

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