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Is College Worth It? It Depends on Whether You Graduate

In The New York Times on Tuesday morning, David Leonhardt took on the “Is college worth it?” question. His answer? An unequivocal yes. The college wage premium — how much more college grads earn than everyone else — is the widest it’s ever been, Leonhardt wrote. Graduates are much more likely to find jobs than nongraduates. And despite mounting fears about student debt levels, the average student’s loan burden pales in comparison to the long-term benefits of a bachelor’s degree.

“For all the struggles that many young college graduates face,” Leonhardt wrote, “a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable.”

That’s probably true. Sure, some people end up with unmanageable debt loads, and not everyone who earns a bachelor’s degree easily gets a job, let alone a good one (all points that Leonhardt acknowledges). But on average, college graduates are much better off than nongraduates.

But just because people who graduate from college are better off doesn’t necessarily mean that going to college is a good decision. Most of the benefits of college come from graduating, not enrolling. Indeed, as Leonhardt pointed out, the wage premium for people with some college but no degree has been stagnant, even as debt levels have been rising. That means that people who start college but drop out may be worse off than people who never enrolled in the first place. Any attempt to answer the “Is college worth it?” question, therefore, has to grapple with not only the value of a degree, but the likelihood of obtaining one.

For many students, the odds aren’t good. Less than 60 percent of full-time students who are enrolled in college for the first time graduate within six years. Part-time students have an even lower completion rate, as do racial minorities and older and low-income students. For some groups, the six-year graduation rate is well under 20 percent. The vast majority of Americans from advantaged backgrounds enroll in college, so the students struggling with the “Should I or shouldn’t I?” question are disproportionately members of groups with low graduation rates.

Leonhardt argued that low graduation rates aren’t an argument against college; they’re an argument for programs aimed at improving graduation rates. The New York Times Magazine recently profiled one such effort in Texas, which is showing some promise. “As the economy becomes more technologically complex, the amount of education that people need will rise,” Leonhardt wrote. “At some point, 15 years or 17 years of education will make more sense as a universal goal.”

That may be true from an economic policy perspective. But for an individual, the calculation is different. The college decision may be a “a no-brainer,” as Leonhardt said, but only for those reasonably confident they can finish with a degree.

Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.