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I wonder if a fourth factor is more hidden: the high number of students who go to college but don’t graduate. In a large national study, Clark and Allensworth study HS GPA and ACT/SAT scores as a predictor of college graduation. For example, students with a 3.0 to 3.25 HS GPA only graduate in 6 years about half the time in average. Think about the huge number of students who go to college, pay (or borrow) a ton of money, and leave without much to show for it. I imagine this group has lost a lot of faith and confidence in higher ed. Does most of the ROI data about the value of college only study people who actually graduated?

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That's a good point. I think ROI only looks at those that actually graduated. Those that spent some time in college, borrowed money, and didn't graduate, could have a negative ROI.

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Universities in America still serve a role as a socioeconomic “sorting-hat’ for attendees. Many parents and students value this function; indeed it may be the most important factor in determining their choice. Should it influence ROI calculations?

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If the sorting-hat starts to fail, in other words, you are no better off socioeconomically after going to college then would seem to me ROI isn't there and parents then stop valuing higher ed.

The other point, I think you are making is that even if the ROI is around zero financially there is a value on being able to say one is college educated. This is an interesting point and makes sense. This going to my point that college has value in life beyond just the job market.

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I’m also suggesting that career earnings differential vs. those who don’t attend/graduate is not the correct numerator for beginning a ROI calculation.

Aren’t adults who have gained the skills and perspectives offered by a challenging and comprehensive education more likely to lead a life that benefits others and satisfies their own ambitions?

Hard to quantify, eh?

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Fair point. Quick google search: First, we find that education shows a significant effect on life satisfaction independent of its effect on income, thus identifying a consumption component of education. Furthermore, given that the contribution of education to individual wellbeing might depend partly on relative position rather than absolute levels, we next study whether education can be considered as a positional good. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228420014_Education_and_satisfaction_with_life_the_role_of_positional_concerns

I'll have to read more, but the question I'm left with is that these are not random samples of student who attend college.

I do think higher ed should be talking more about life satisfaction than simply a financial return on investment.

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So many possible variables to consider...! (The fun stuff, truly, is thinking about all the possible explanations.) Type of college, non-profit or for-profit; 2-year or 4-year. Age at enrollment or re-enrollment – 18? 23? etc. Type of college – residential, dormitory, traditional age students, OR commuter, mixed-age, etc. How much debt is incurred and what sorts (parent-cosigned loans? loans via federal gov't?) What is a person told or led to believe about 'college' and it as an investment or a goal? Is there a perception that 'college' alone 'should' bring heaps of job offers and life satisfaction? I could go on and on from my sociological perspective....

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Yup. One variable almost never explains something. Get on it, I look forward to what the other variables tell us. :)

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I’d love to play with data more. Maybe in October.

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