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You + college = $$$

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You often hear that college is overrated. A recent article in the New York Times laid out the case. But, don’t pack your duffel bag for that backpacking trip through Europe just yet. You want to earn the big bucks? Go to college.

The anti-education argument is this:

“It is true that we need more nanosurgeons than we did 10 to 15 years ago,” said Prof. [Richard] Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research nonprofit in Washington. “But the numbers are still relatively small compared to the numbers of nurses’ aides we’re going to need. We will need hundreds of thousands of them over the next decade.” And much of their training, he added, might be feasible outside the college setting.

College degrees are simply not necessary for many jobs…

This argument makes some important points. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that many colleges are failing at their central mission: turning students into graduates. As a result, some students end up with thousands of dollars in debt but no real-world skills.

But is the lesson of this failure that we should tell more teenagers not to enroll in college? The answer is very straightforward: look at how much college graduates earn compared to everyone else.

These are real, inflation-adjusted numbers for weekly pay studied over the past 25 years. As you can see, college graduates earn more money. Further, the weekly pay has gone down for every group except college graduates.

Sure, it’s theoretically possible that these trends have nothing to do with the actual education that college students receive. Perhaps graduates gain little or nothing from college that they didn’t already know — but the economy has been changing in ways that favor the kinds of people who enroll in college and make it through. Who’s to say?

Economists, that’s who. Labor economists have spent years studying this exact issue, devising careful studies to see whether students actually benefit from college. The answer, in a nutshell, is that they do. Sherlock Holmes would be proud: the simplest explanation is often the correct one.

So, picture it. You’re an 18 year-old deciding whether to go to college or take the chance and move to Hollywood to become the next big thing. Do you think that 25 years of statistical analysis is just a coincidence? Fine. If you do then you probably wouldn’t have passed the Admissions interview anyway.

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