A college degree is not a worthwhile investment for everyone, but it can pay off for the right kinds of students.
James Heckman, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, has examined how the returns on education break down for individuals with different backgrounds and levels of ability. “Even with these high prices, you’re still finding a high return for individuals who are bright and motivated,” he says. On the other hand, “if you’re not college ready, then the answer is no, it’s not worth it.” Experts tend to agree that for the average student, college is still worth it today, but they also agree that the rapid increase in price is eating up more and more of the potential return. For borderline students, tuition hikes can push those returns into negative territory.
If college only pays off for ‘individuals who are bright and motivated’, should we establish better standards to make sure that taxpayer funds only be spent on students who have a good chance of generating a good return on investment? Instead of “bright and motivated” I would prefer to describe these students as “prepared and motivated”, although it’s also true that a minimum level of ability is probably needed for most college-level work. In any case, poorly motivated high school graduates who are unprepared for the rigors of college work should not be wasting taxpayer money taking remedial college classes. These students are squandering both money and time, and run a high risk of graduating with student loan debt but with no degree to show for their efforts If anything, these “borderline” students would be better served by other types of assistance that would help them along on an alternative path to a self-sustaining job.
* James Heckman has studied the economics of investing in early childhood education.