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Is college worth it? A return-on-investment analysis (freopp.org)
146 points by paulpauper 3 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 307 comments

It makes my flesh crawl to see college reduced purely to ROI, but at least they're honest that that's what they're doing.

I just hope people at least consider all of the other "outputs" of going to college when reading something like this. The ROI analysis is good data, it answers an important question. But there are many, many other important questions worth answering. (And most of them aren't quantifiable, so it's not like you could do a study on them if you wanted to.)

College can be an awful experience for some people even if they end up making good money. And it can be an excellent life experience for people who end up making dirt. I got lucky -- I had a great experience, I learned a lot of important non-academic things, I broke out of my shell, and it's pretty directly responsible for a large portion of my earnings. (And yes, the numbers for my university and major from the study match my current income and age quite well.)

But now I have a kid in high school, and I'm facing all the questions about what futures to keep open and what ones to sacrifice in the service of others. College is much more expensive now. My family was dirt poor and so I had massive financial aid; any financial aid my kid gets will have to be merit-based. Degree inflation has sucked away a lot of the value of having a degree. I can afford to support a less secure (low-risk) path through life if I think it would be better for my kid as a human being. These are not easy questions to be facing.

Increasingly I see the idea of thinking of college in any other terms as a deliberate meme designed to make people pay extremely high prices and put them in a debt trap, and that the sources of that meme like it that way.

Before college can be creating well-rounded citizenry or provide "excellent life experiences" or any of the other things people want of it, it must first provide a good ROI. This is a necessary foundation. If it is not doing that, then all the other fancy things are merely digging the debt trap in deeper because you're paying for all these things while failing to obtain a method of paying them back.

As a culture, in decades past we were used to college generally being so cheap that providing a good ROI wasn't that big a deal. It's much easier to get a good ROI out of something cheap. So we focused on the higher layers and were able to neglect the fact that the higher layers were always built on a foundation of the fact that college in general was a good ROI. Consequently we have come to misinterpret those higher level things as the purpose of college.

But it is necessary that these aspirational benefits be setting on a good foundation of good ROI to not be abusive to the customer.

It is not and must not be considered some sort of betrayal to be worried about ROI for college. It must simply be seen as an understanding of the fact that as the costs have changed, the way we must analyze college has also changed. It was always true, it's just now it has manifested in a larger way.

College wouldn’t need to provide a good roi if it were much mess expensive. Just like, strictly speaking, going to a movie doesn’t provide a good roi.

It’s one thing to take four years of your life deepening your thinking ability and stretching your mind without a good roi if you come out the other end without crushing debt and prospects for employment that can sustain you, even if those prospects have nothing to do with your college experience. This is what college was like until the last four decades or so.

It’s entirely another to come out the other side in crippling debt and no prospects for any kind of sustaining job.

If it provides the same value, but costs less, then by definition, the ROI is better. OTOH, if it puts you in crippling debt, but you have no prospects of a job to support that - the ROI becomes bad or even negative. So doesn't it capture all of that already?

In some sense, twice the cost for twice the benefit might be worth it to those who can afford it, because the time-wise investment (4 years or so of your life) remain constant.

No, it doesn't capture all of that already.

A "better" ROI doesn't necessarily mean a positive ROI.

Getting negative 10% return on a $1,000 investment doesn't matter as much as getting a negative 10% return on a $100,000 investment.

Magnitude certainly is relevant to vector comparisons; but, if we define ROI as nominal rate of return, gross returns are not relevant to a comparison by that metric.

Return on Investment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Return_on_investment

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vector_(mathematics_and_physic... :

> A Euclidean vector is thus an equivalence class of directed segments with the same magnitude (e.g., the length of the line segment (A, B)) and same direction (e.g., the direction from A to B).[3] In physics, Euclidean vectors are used to represent physical quantities that have both magnitude and direction, but are not located at a specific place, in contrast to scalars, which have no direction.[4] For example, velocity, forces and acceleration are represented by vectors

Quantitatively and Qualitatively quantify the direct and external benefits of {college, other alternatives} with criteria in additional to real monetary ROI?

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welfare_economics

> Welfare economics also provides the theoretical foundations for particular instruments of public economics, including cost–benefit analysis,

Except that the grandparent post that you responded to was all about the magnitude of the loss rather than just ROI. If the magnitude of the loss is manageable, then the ROI becomes less important for life decisions.

So sure! If all we are looking at is ROI then you are right! By definition! As long as you restrict your refutation ("by that metric") in a way that ignores the additional metric I had been trying to add to the conversation. I was trying to point out that there are other metrics that matter.

Direct or External Loss?

Is the unique loss you identify not accounted for in the traditional ROI expression?

From https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18833730 :

>> Why would people make an investment with insufficient ROI (Return on Investment)?

> Insufficient information.

> College Scorecard [1] is a database with a web interface for finding and comparing schools according to a number of objective criteria. CollegeScorecard launched in 2015. It lists "Average Annual Cost", "Graduation Rate", and "Salary After Attending" on the search results pages. When you review a detail page for an institution, there are many additional statistics; things like: "Typical Total Debt After Graduation" and "Typical Monthly Loan Payment".

> The raw data behind CollegeScorecard can be downloaded from [2]. The "data_dictionary" tab of the "Data Dictionary" spreadsheet describes the data schema.

> [1] https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/

> [2] https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/

> Khan Academy > "College, careers, and more" [3] may be a helpful supplement for funding a full-time college admissions counselor in a secondary education institution

> [3] https://www.khanacademy.org/college-careers-more

https://www.khanacademy.org/college-careers-more/college-adm... :

- [ ] Video & exercise / Jupyter notebook under Exploring college options for Return on Investment (according to e.g. CollegeScorecard data)

Do you actually have anything to back that up? I'm not being antagonistic, but the impression I've gotten is that education was largely done for the sake of itself, like if you read Les Miserables the collegiate cast was largely poor - with the exception being those of high birth. Which I mean, take that for how you will, it is a fictional work. But then in Ancient China we see stuff like the Imperial Exam, which does sort of direct the education->wealth, but you still see the pattern of high birth being the ultimate determinant of success in most cases. Which to me says there is a paternal drive to have your kids educated, but for the sake of education itself, since ostensibly the family unit is already well established.

But I'm actually really interested in reading a historical perspective of education, so if you've got some sources I'd appreciate your sharing them.

My point is philosophical, not historical.

To put it another way, education for the sake of education is higher on the Maslow Hierarchy than being able to make a decent ROI on college. Self-actualization is great and all, but when you're telling people to pursue it at the expense of whether or not they're going to eat something it's not noble and honorable, it's tone-deaf at best and can be downright evil when huge propaganda machines are deployed to convince people to do it, because the people selling self-actualization benefit.

Debt skews the understanding by moving the time that the payments come due around but they're still due. It doesn't change the fundamental calculation.

"the collegiate cast was largely poor"

But were they going into massive, life-changing debt? Poor people going to a generally cheap (by modern standards!) college is no big deal. But now we're sending poor people to expensive college, so they can self-actualize at the expense of a good chunk of the rest of their life. This isn't noble.

Did college in those places / time periods put you into debt?

But anyway, what's the point of looking that far back and cross-content, why don't we compare it to American universities just a few decades ago?

> Did college in those places / time periods put you into debt?

It was common for family lineages fo hundreds of people to support promising students to do the Imperial examinations and they didn't do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Equally people don't pay for their sons to study law for their intelectual development. Only the relatively wealthy could afford to send a son to college. Just being able to afford them not working for 3-5 years marks them as wealthy even if they fely poor in comparison with others of their social class.

> Before college can be creating well-rounded citizenry or provide "excellent life experiences" or any of the other things people want of it, it must first provide a good ROI. This is a necessary foundation.

I'd like to say _at the same time_, college can provide a good ROI and good citizens, life experiences, etc.

But besides college, what are some other choices, programs, whatever that could provide some of college's added features? Public service (in the U.S., military, Americorps, Peace Corps)? What's available in other countries?

If there is one part of the german system I'd recommend other countries to (partially) emulate, it is the apprenticeship model. Germany has multiple ways a person can finish school; from Hauptschulabschluss (limited apprenticeships), over Realschulabschluss (apprenticeships), and Fachabitur (apprenticeships + applied studies in a field you specialised in) to Abitur (everything).

The thing is that finishing an apprenticeship enables you to do an applied Bacelor in the field. After a Bachelors, you can continue on in academia if you like. And you can go back to school at 30 to finish your (Fach-)Abitur, if you failed it before. The state will even pay you to attend. There's very clear paths to jobs, but also a lot of ways to change your direction.

Going back to apprenticeships, they are plentiful and often well-payed. For example, most of the Sys-admins I know did an apprenticeship, which consists of 3 years of school while working half-time at a company. This combination of school and work is the best of both worlds for experience, and it enables young people to get a career path without too much though.

> Before college can be creating well-rounded citizenry or provide "excellent life experiences" or any of the other things people want of it, it must first provide a good ROI. This is a necessary foundation. If it is not doing that, then all the other fancy things are merely digging the debt trap in deeper because you're paying for all these things while failing to obtain a method of paying them back.

I don't disagree, the thing is that well-rounded citizenry is a necessary prerequisite for a democratic society. That means, as a society we need to make the ROI for an individual worth it by paying for it as a society or offer meaningful alternatives.

This is one of the things that capitalism is terrible at, and thus it must be supplemented through public spending.

ROI heavily depends on the student. A college can be expensive and provide everything required for a good ROI (name brand, education opportunities, networking, internships) but still result in a low ROI if the student just expects to be handed a 6 figure job upon graduation while coasting and partying for 4 years.

It starts with who is let in the doors, and to some extent, it’s garbage in garbage out. Putting ROI solely on the institution is not right. Maybe you can say it should be the institution’s job to only bring in motivated students, but there are only so many of those to go around.

The thing is, all of the other benefits you list are luxury items. There are myriad ways of improving yourself. Taking out massive loans to do so with everything we have access to now only makes sense if the loans have a lower interest rate than your investment returns, or if the end result is a degree that opens doors to a higher income bracket.

There are other funding mechanisms possible, but after decades of free flowing money from government backed loans to students, university budgets are extremely inflated and should be substantially cut back if we expect someone else (I.e. taxes) to be paying the tuition.

> decades of free flowing money from government backed loans to students

This, along with the perception that any college degree is a golden ticket, is the root of the problem.

The article mentions that 2/3rds of high-school graduates now attend college. That number is double what it was 30 years ago, and I'd argue that only a small fraction of that additional one-third should be getting a college degree.

My assumption is that a large percentage of the additional one-third is getting college degrees based in part or whole on free-flowing government-guaranteed financial aid, which is provided under the (mistaken) assumption that raising disadvantaged students up the income ladder can be solved by throwing money at them in order to get them any college degree.

The problem is colleges and universities have increased their prices so much over the last 20 years they're forcing people to make this kind of analysis on ROI. In the old days a young person could pay for a local university with a part time job and spend 4 years getting a major with a poor ROI just because it was interesting or so they can participate in campus life, but those days are gone. Now that a 4 year degree could result in a lifetime of debt people should do some careful analysis before making that kind of decision, and that’s purely on these institutions of higher learning for pricing themselves out of the market.

Here is where I realise how happy I am to live in a country with a pretty good educational system, which is free to any citizen who qualifies to enter.

Commercial healthcare and education seem to really bring about the worst aspects of a market economy, in some countries. Not sure where it works well, it maybe somewhere.

> Commercial healthcare and education seem to really bring about the worst aspects of a market economy, in some countries. Not sure where it works well, it maybe somewhere.

Mostly, IMO, because they're not free markets. Healthcare actively fights price transparency, and is largely driven by fixed demand and artificially constrained supply. College costs can only do what they do because the whole thing is financed by grants and uniquely binding loans pushed on students who barely understand what they're getting into. If we could force the whole thing into an actual free market, it'd vastly improve the situation.

>pretty good educational system, which is free to any citizen

Just because you are not paying for it doesn't mean it has zero costs. If you're not paying for it, someone else is, the ROI burden gets shifted to the society as a whole, which is much, much worse than the burden being on an individual.

We will probably have to agree to disagree on that. The cost at a technical university in Sweden, to the society is about USD 10 k/year [1]. MIT is 77 k/year [2]. MIT is ranked first in the world. KTH (89) and Chalmers (121) in Sweden are ranked top 10% in the listed 1300 [3]

Is it better for society to get a decent education for a low cost, for society as a whole? It seems to work for Sweden, and many other European countries. [4]

[1] https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helårsstudent_och_helårspresta...

[2] https://sfs.mit.edu/undergraduate-students/the-cost-of-atten...

[3] https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-un...

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Development_Index

German universities tend to kick you out just as quickly as let you in. When the students are paying thousands in tuition you can't do that. You'll let them stay to get their tuition money even if you're wasting the time of that student.

> which is free to any citizen who qualifies to enter.

Ah yes, "qualifies".

How many citizens "qualify"?

The number of people who qualify is decided by two people - the person allocating money and the person running the education system.

The person allocating the money says "I'll give you {amount}". The person running the education system says "{amount} will let us educate {number}".

> The person allocating the money says "I'll give you {amount}". The person running the education system says "{amount} will let us educate {number}".

Nah, they say "I'll give you {amount} to educate {number}", and then the educator tries to do as much as possible with the resources they got. There is no negotiation about either {amount} or {number}, other than trying to argue that amount or number needs to be changed because quality or industry wants more/less.

My point stands - the number who "qualify" is decided by two bureaucracies. One decides how much money to spend, the other spends it.

In such a system, it's typical that one bureaucracy decides what "qualify" means.

And another decides what "educate" means.

John Adams had it right in a letter he wrote from Paris, France in 1780 to his wife Abigail who was back in the US [1].

> I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c. -- if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

We've just gotten a bit stuck at the middle step.

[1] https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L178005...

John Adams was not a poor starving college student in Paris. He had graduated from Harvard 25 years earlier. He was, however, very committed to his purpose. And probably over-compensating for frat house Ben.

Interesting, my take on this quote was always sorta the reverse - the one based on Ibn Khaldun; Adams should have added add "so that their children would again have to study Politicks and War".

I wish we could get stuck on the 2nd stage forever! But I feel like we are well into the 3rd stage and may be on the way back to the 1st ;)

sort of? Many people study the final steps, it just needs to be an objective decision, and somehow it just isn't for most of the US college attending population.

> It makes my flesh crawl to see college reduced purely to ROI, but at least they're honest that that's what they're doing.

This comment is coming from the position of privilege. And I cannot possibly agree to it.

Gone are the good old days of cheap/free college in the US. As parents, it is our responsibility to help our kids to avoid these "new" financial traps.

These kids will be robbed from their own future if we let them be enslaved to large debts. Not to mention a lot of other complex issues such as jobs disappearing due to automation, greater wealth gap even between the middle class, etc.

The kids are too young to understand these traps. We should help them.

>> It makes my flesh crawl to see college reduced purely to ROI, but at least they're honest that that's what they're doing.

> This comment is coming from the position of privilege.

Absolutely. That's why I said so later in the message. I can now afford to pay the ridiculous prices without either me or my children going into debt. Ironically, that ability is a direct result of me going to college, with massive (mostly need-based) financial aid. But I am not pretending that my past history is relevant in today's world. My decision back then was based on a situation that no longer exists, not for me, my children, nor anyone else.

> And I cannot possibly agree to it.

What part? I agreed that ROI is valuable information. I guess you're saying that it's ok to reduce college to financial ROI, that ROI outweighs everything else and so everything else can be ignored.

I agree with that if you're in a situation where you will end up in massive debt. Having a good time and learning lots is not going to counterbalance that. But not everyone is, and it's not based completely on how much money you have. Financial aid availability varies, college prices are across the board higher but some are less overpriced than others, community college transfers can halve the total expense, etc. The scenario of ending up debt-ridden is far, far more common today, but it's still far from universal.

Looking only at theoretical ROI leads to bad decisions like going into a field you hate because it has better ROI, then abandoning it and ending up worse off. You need to look at ROI and other outcomes.

The ROI analysis helps understand whether subsidized college enables social mobility.

Subsidized college is politically convenient because you can sell it to corporate interests as reducing the cost of skilled labor, to labor as a way to move up social strata, and to lower-level elites as a way to facilitate booting incompetent or uncouth people out of their stratum (you can sum up the latter two clauses as "meritocracy").

If people weren't forced to accept subsidized college as a substitute for wealth redistribution (IMO this is largely the case) you might not see so much obsession with ROI.

It also makes my flesh crawl knowing that American kids at the age of 18 take up massive debt, while they aren't even considered mature enough to drink legally by the same country.

Large debt is a unique burden. One should not start their financial life with it. Much like skiing, running or doing calculus, one should do baby steps first before proceeding to make huge investments and committing oneself to a decade or more of indebtedness.

Many ancient societies held a strong taboo against massive debts - for a reason. For people outside prison, it is the closest you can get to enslavement in a completely legal way.

> It makes my flesh crawl to see college reduced purely to ROI, but at least they're honest that that's what they're doing.

When going to college means taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt, it makes sense to start looking at ROI, especially when there's a certain group of people that will tell you "If you want to make a living wage, then you need to go to college and make something of yourself!", then will ostracize them for making bad financial decisions when they take on massive student loan debt to pay for the college.

EDIT: To add a point of anecdata, when I finished my BS in CS in 2014, I came out with ~$45,000 in student loan debt. And this is on the LOWER end of debt, and I was only able to have it so low because I had already been living in the city my university was in. I still worked ~30 hours/week while going to school full time. If I had to stay in dorms or something, I probably would have had $100K+ in debt. It's absolutely ridiculous.

> ~$45,000 in student loan debt. And this is on the LOWER end of debt

$45,000 is well above the average student loan debt even as of 2021, which is variously reported as $35-40k (but see $30k, below). The median debt amount is substantially lower (~1/2), but it doesn't fit the narrative so it's rarely reported.

What's unclear to me is whether these numbers are for all outstanding debt, or for debts at graduation. This site says the 2021 average debt at graduation is $36k, https://educationdata.org/average-student-loan-debt-by-year ($30k at https://thecollegeinvestor.com/33643/average-student-loan-mo...). But this site says the median outstanding debt amount for all people with student loans is $20-25k, https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2021-economic-we... That's very confusing, especially considering that [1] and [2] give $17k and $19k, respectively, for the median. I can't square these numbers unless, perhaps, it's the case that people even at the lower end aren't paying down principal and are accumulating interest debt. (EDIT: The "all outstanding" median Fed figure makes more sense when you realize that it excludes those who managed to pay off their loans entirely, and so it will have a long tail of very high debt students, the very same students inflating the average to begin with, and the ones most likely to be stuck in a debt trap.)

[1] https://thecollegeinvestor.com/33643/average-student-loan-mo... [2] https://www.valuepenguin.com/average-student-loan-debt

> What's unclear to me is whether these numbers are for all outstanding debt, or for debts at graduation.

There's another possibility too: People who attended but never graduated. I know someone who went to a community college for a year, taking out about $10K in student loans, but dropped out before completing their Associate's. [0]

The thing is, there's so many possible categories when it comes to considering loan debt. People who didn't graduate, people who got an Associate's and stopped, people who got an Associate's and kept going, but didn't finish their Bachelor's, people (like me) who were able to stay in their existing home while going to school versus having to stay in college housing...I could go on.

And how you choose which subset of student loan debtors can determine the narrative you want to shape. If a study only focuses on people with at least a Master's that stayed in college dorms, then you'll probably get a high number, but of course the news sites will have a headline that claims "The average college grad has $XXX,XXX in student loan debt", and only mention in the body of the article (that many people won't read) that it's only a subset of college grads.

[0] Somewhat irrelevant footnote: This person then rants about college being a complete waste of money because you'll "still end up working Comcast tech support for $13/hour".

I agree. It makes sense to look at ROI. It also makes sense to look at other outcomes.

At some point, I think we'll have to get serious about letting the universities collapse and providing opportunities to get the other benefits without spiraling costs. Maybe a large fraction of our grandkids will end up going to college in Estonia, which will make it their "thing" to provide high quality education for a fraction of the price. Or maybe the US will import the apprenticeship model from Germany. Or maybe remote work will become so common that it'll become normal for post high school kids to congregate in inexpensive apartment complexes with decent videoconferencing setups, companies will finally get back to investing in training their new employees, and we can call it dorms 2.0.

I was in high school about 6-8 years ago now and I can tell you that high schools constantly push going to University. It doesn't matter if you're going into a program like psychology with 800 other students or if you're going into STEM, they push you to just go to University "because employers want it". And parents often feel that same pressure and just want their kid to have a degree. I went to university for software engineering, but I minored in psychology. So many people in my minor seemed to be doing it for their parents and not as much for themselves. When they graduated they weren't really much further in life than before University. If anything a lot of them were further set back. Because their job prospects with such a degree are basically non-existent. The university will happily pump through tons of students in degrees that have almost zero demand. In a program like psych the only way to even find a job that needs you and would pay a bit more is if you get a masters or PhD.

I know so many people who graduated programs like psych and they are barely making above minimum wage and didn't really get to utilize their degree. And not only that, but they often have a lot of debt.

On the other hand, trades are in very high demand. Most trade programs here are just 1-2 years long and you'll exit them with a job secured almost right away and already be making fairly decent money. You'll be making more money than almost anyone with a Uni degree in a non-STEM field. But despite this, it was barely even presented as an option in high-school. We had Universities come and give talks about what it's like, and what kinds of programs they offered. Did we get the same about other education options? Nope.

For some reason there is this view in society that you have to have a degree otherwise you won't be successful and that you're not smart. In fact media/entertainment often also pushes this same narrative which doesn't help things either.

So many of those psych grads I talked about ended up going back to college (In Canada college is like a trades school or community college in America) to take additional programs on HR or admin related topics. They find their degree didn't get them anywhere and they end up having to go to another kind of education to make themselves hirable.

> It makes my flesh crawl to see college reduced purely to ROI, but at least they're honest that that's what they're doing.

Every choice a person makes has an implicit ROI calculation. It is good to make them explicit to make them accurate, to prevent from being disappointed due to erroneous calculations.

>from being disappointed due to erroneous calculations

It's also good to be explicit about the bits not calculated in the ROI.

Utility functions that only use monies as input is sooo 18th century.

The concept of ROI does not need to be restricted to money. Every time someone thinks “I will do this because it is worth it or worth my time”, whether it be talking to a neighbor or performing labor in exchange for money, you are making the calculation.

That's... My point.

I don't know. To some extent I do agree with you that the social experience of attending university can be very valuable in ways that aren't easy to measure. But part of the reason for that is that university is pretty much the only socially acceptable way for 18-22 year olds to move away from their parents for the first time and spend 4 years burning huge amounts of money hanging out with other 18-22 year olds. And I mostly agree with the article's claim that "Most students attend college in order to get a better job with a higher salary," or at least that's the core reason why it's generally socially acceptable to attend a university. What if there were other socially acceptable ways for 18-22 year olds to hang out with peers, and get exposure to various fields of study and potential career paths, that had significantly different ROI factors than traditional universities?

I absolutely agree. I'm hopeful that with the ridiculous debt loads that are common today, that there's enough pressure to start inventing these kinds of things.

"Succeeding" at the current setup (which includes not going broke) requires high school juniors to know enough about what they want to do that they can do the ROI calculation, and heavily penalizes them for getting it "wrong". Which is ridiculous and unfair. It also pushes everyone to be the sort of people who I don't particularly like to hang out with.

There are cheaper ways to learn 'non-academic things' and 'break out of your shell' than by paying 20k a year.

In-state tuition is around $13k/year at UCs and $7k/year at CSUs, and that's before applying the many grants available to lower and middle income families.

Even if you put $0 down on the FAFSA and taxes, you will still not cover tuition even at an affordable school. Federal student loans only cover about $2000 subsidized and $2500 unsubsidized.

Housing already is an unsubsidized loan, if not more, to live in a brick room with immature kids that shouldn't be in school. Did I mention how much sleep you don't get?

Meal plans are required your freshman semester, that's $2200 at an affordable school.

Even with all the grants and student loans in the world you still have to take out private loans. Private loans you have to pay on every month.

Work study is factored into costs already, meaning to get those numbers you have to work at the University. Work study is only available to lowest of income, and those with parents are screwed out of it.

Uni's are also not close enough to most external work, so how exactly are students going to pay on those loans?

Parking is non existent at major universities. Owning a vehicle is not a real concept, and even if a student does (like I), insurance and costs are very expensive. How is that being paid for?

There are far too many students whom parents refuse to help. Parent income has no relevance to affordability of school for many students. Turns out American parents are terribly ignorant, even after their degree.

We need to federally regulate universities, fire a lot of people, remove most general requirements, shorten degrees to 2 years, and a whole lot of other things.

Don't forget to include the cost in forgone wages. That's got to be at least $20k a year.


>It makes my flesh crawl to see college reduced purely to ROI...

Imagine knowing that one of the houses you are looking to buy will leave you worse off than the others. Would you find that information useful?

Think of this as the same thing - some choices will leave you permanently worse off. I'd rather know that ahead of time so that I can either avoid them, or at a minimum, understand what I'm getting in to.

Real life advice

You should consider helping your kid to learn a foreign language of a developed country, such as France, Germany. The investment into private tutor, who will prepare him for TEFAQ or DAF test will pay off in the long run. Once he knows French or German he can apply to really good universities in France, Germany or Quebec(Canada). The education in Europe is really cheap. Its about 1500 euro per year, and his monthly expenses are within 1000 euro. So you end up paying about 15K euro per year. The price range for Quebec province universities is about 7000 CAD per year and about 1000 CAD for monthly expenses.

Overall, the investment in a foreign language will completely pay off. In the worst scenario your son will have a backup plan to move to Europe/Canada and live a normal life.

US is not the only place in this world to get a good education.

Thanks. I had been thinking along those lines, but not quite that far. It is good advice.

ROI shouldn't be the only consideration. But a student should know it ahead of time.

I was undecided whether to major in either electrical engineering or journalism. I had a passion for both, I was a amateur radio operator who built his own gear and was also editor of my high school newspaper.

When a counselor at my university told me that I was four times more likely to get a job as a J grad in when I graduated vs an ee grad it made my decision for me. I mean after all he was the expert. Four years later however the exact reverse was true ;<).

Don't go to college in the US. Go to college in other countries which are cheaper - Canada, certain European countries, Asia. The money goes a long way, and you get a multitude of rich and diverse cultural experiences. This might not work for everyone, but if the individual is independent, mature and extroverted, might be a great choice.

>>Go to college in other countries which are cheaper - Canada

Canadian universities are still eye-wateringly expensive if you're an international (i.e. non-Canadian) student according to tuition fee schedules from University of Toronto¹, McGill², Queens³, University of British Columbia⁴ and Western University⁵.

¹ https://planningandbudget.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/202...

² https://www.mcgill.ca/undergraduate-admissions/finances/cost...

³ https://www.queensu.ca/registrar/sites/webpublish.queensu.ca...



Francophone universities are significantly cheaper, but you have to speak French.

As a Montrealer the thought of paying 53 000$ to study a year at McGill is insane to me. Especially since international students have to study one more year than those from Quebec!

McGill being more expensive than other universities is a large part of why I chose not to study there, and that was only around 10 000$ extra over my whole degree.

It's not easy to get in to these places if you are from the US. Less than the top 10% of students would qualify with their diploma.

I'd agree with your sentiment if college was as cheap as it was 20+ years ago, but in many places it's become so expensive that it's almost mandatory to consider the cost in these decisions.

My flesh is crawling because ROI doesn't have units of dollars.

The tragedy of the commons---the return on your (personal) investment, in monetary terms, is the easiest and obviously most (personally) important factor to consider.

If you have to borrow for college, you should consider ROI.

If something costs tens of thousands of dollars, it must be looked at in terms of ROI, or otherwise be reserved for the ultra-wealthy.

> I got lucky -- I had a great experience, I learned a lot of important non-academic things, I broke out of my shell

11 years of schooling before college, extracurriculars, friends and family weren’t enough for that? Huh, maybe something wrong is not only with colleges but with child upbringing as a whole if that’s true for many people.

18-22ish is a formative time for many people. If you were fully formed at age 18 with just exposure to the family any friends you grew up with that’s great, but the new perspective and easing into freedom of college is valuable for many people.

Why is that, though? I think it points back to problems with earlier schooling. People used to be pretty independent at 18 in the past, as far as I know, with formative years being much earlier.

Is it valuable or just different? What’s so magical about the numbers 18-22?

I can't speak for everyone but I want to say it was valuable for me to be separated from my family at that age and put in another semi-structured environment like college. My family was incredibly supportive, well-roundeded, upper-middle-class, and therefore I lived in a neighbourhood surrounded mostly by other families from my background. Being able to be separated from that environment and exposed to a diverse background of wealth/privilege was incredibly helpful to my capacity for empathy and willingness to be wrong. (I went to a state college in a primarily working class city.)

What does this have to do with college? You can just move out.

College provided me with a semi-structured environment that gave me set obligations (classes, activities) without the pressure of finding and managing employment (while also being exposed to others who did have this pressure, which again, did so much for acknowledging my privileges in background).

Colleges also often provide a space for people to access mental healthcare for the first time independently without the overwhelm of psychologytoday.com or other directory. Please note that there are several significant and life-altering mental illnesses that also typically kick in around this time, and early intervention does wonders.

It's not the years (roughly speaking) -- move college to 16, or 20, the point still stands. For many people it's the first time they leave the only family/friend/schooling setting they've ever lived with.

Some people certainly don't need that, but I think a soft-entry into the real world in a more limited environment is not to be dismissed outright. It was certainly helpful for me.

No matter how good your family and secondary schooling is (and for many people, it is lousy!), I think that having only one environment and set of perspectives before you're assumed to be a solo capable adult is not ideal.

What does this have to do with college? You can just move out.

The effectiveness of a college experience really depends on the type of person that is attending it.

College is indeed becoming overpriced.

If the person is seeking a party experience, it's a bad idea if they don't have rich parents that will support them and pay off loans later on.

If the person is a mature, informed, and energetic business go-getter, and they actually manage to start new ideas while they attend school, and then establish vital bonds with other go-getters they meet, they can potentially gain a lot from a college experience.

Once you join the working world, the diversity of ideas and ability to meet ambitious people regularly wanes a bit. Also as one ages, the energy and enthusiasm for change also decreases to an extent. Carpe Diem.

I also believe though, that some people can and have create(d) amazing and ambitious careers without a college education, or by dropping out early from the process. There are no rules...

I partially disagree. Assuming you are majoring in something that has some positive ROI and do enough to actually graduate, which isn’t hard at most colleges, the party experience can be very supportive of most people’s future careers.

The social skills, networks, and alumni connections you build at college are a large fraction of the benefit that college gives the average person to further their career.

Otherwise, I agree. College is a great time to take advantage of the time you have to change your network, generate new ideas and take risks. And I also agree that most there can be benefit (though highly unlikely) for some people to not attend college or to drop out.

I find it really funny how we talking about socialization like it's just for really young kids when we all have experience dealing with adults that never learned the skills.

College is expensive socialization to be sure, so make sure to go for other reasons as well -- but if you aren't going to parties, making friends, and doing stupid shit then you're missing out on part of the real tangible value provided by colleges which is community. (And to be clear this is something totally separate from professional networking.)

I have been in IT for 25 years. If the gang at work was going to a bar after work, I would go - just to enjoy myself, giving no thought to it furthering my career and so forth.

Despite going for purely to enjoy myself and giving no thought to work or my career, I would say an hour I've spent in a bar with my co-workers almost always does more for my career than spending twenty hours over a weekend getting some pull request finished so my product manager can check it off their list. I've found out information about my workplace that I really needed to know. Once it probably saved me from getting axed during a layoff once since I didn't interact much with outside the bar with the manager who put in a good word for me when they were cutting people.

> If the person is a mature, informed, and energetic business go-getter, and they actually manage to start new ideas while they attend school, and then establish vital bonds with other go-getters they meet, they can potentially gain a lot from a college experience.

A lot of that depends on the college you go to. Doesn't matter how much a "go getter" you are if you don't make connections with someone that can ultimately fund/execute your ideas. Even if they themselves are "go getters".

Further, hard to really judge if you are a "go getter" or a "So, it's like facebook, but for cats!" person.

And here's the real rub, likely the person seeking the party experience with rich parents IS the person that can fund/execute ideas. They don't need to be go getters, they just have to have deep pockets.

Of course, this is all talking about someone going to college primarily for entrepreneurial ideas.

This is the real and true value of ivy league/prestigious schools. It isn't the quality of the knowledge, it's the old deep pockets that also go there.

I was pretty lucky that the Internet came about right when I was attending college. Prior to that, mostly Lawyers and Doctors were the only college grads regularly breaking past 6 figures in jobs. I was also lucky to get through without 6 figure debt, and at low interest rates on Federal loans.

Private loans preyed on so many of my peers and other family members. Also schools quickly raised charges, while underpaying staff. It's really the influence of comerical industry that screws a lot of the benefeits of a college education up nowadays.

The student needs to be a special type of person to get through it, solve all the problems that arise, work out how to maximize their potential, and then quickly get to work on their future.

College is not only a learning process, it's also a huge personal test of character, dedication, and analytical skill. The GPA though really does not determine a person's full capacity though, and the classes are often not what teaches you the most important things.

Many people from non-ivy-league schools also go far beyond many other ivy league students in terms of lifetime accomplishment -- usually because of the type of character they have and people they are (and sometimes because they cheat), but for certain jobs in this world, Ivy League is often an unwritten "pre-requisite".

It does seem overpriced but wages are pretty high these days for grads and there is considerable aid. The biggest cost is if you don't finish.

"I also believe though, that some people can and have create(d) amazing and ambitious careers without a college education, or by dropping out early from the process. There are no rules..."

Absolutely true. Do you have any statistics on their rate of doing that?

Survivor bias: If the only thing you look at is success, success looks pretty easy.

> If the person is a mature, informed, and energetic business go-getter...

But by the time most people get to college, they're still immature and not very well informed.

And I’ll add that lots of people are still immature and not well informed after graduating and well into post college adulthood.

Doesn't anyone go to uni. to learn stuff any more?

>If the person is a mature, informed, and energetic business go-getter, and they actually manage to start new ideas while they attend school, and then establish vital bonds with other go-getters they meet, they can potentially gain a lot from a college experience.

I could not disagree more. What this person gets out of college is nothing more than checking the "has 4yr degree" checkbox you need these days. College will do nothing for them other than check that box. Their own accomplishments will be what carries them through life.

For myself college was absolutely not worth it. What they taught me in comp sci classes was horribly outdated or not representative of the jobs available. I had fun in college and made some good friends but my professional life hasn't been impacted positively in any way by going to college. I looked up my college and my department in their table and I'm making above what they estimate for 45 years old (I'm 30) and I beat the estimates for 25 by a healthy margin.

I dropped out my junior year after working for a full 40-hour week over spring break and realizing I was throwing away money to get a degree to.... get a job that I already had. Since then I've had absolutely no issues finding new jobs and moving up the pay scale. I'm not even sure if shorter (2 year) tech colleges are worth it if you want to go into software engineering, maybe some of the bootcamps are worth it but I'm not sure. I've learned more on the job that I ever learned in the classroom (as it relates to computer science) and if I had it to do again I think I would have paid a company to intern for a few months until my output exceeded any "drain" my lack of knowledge incurred. It would have been far cheaper, I wouldn't still be paying off college loans, and I'd have an extra 3 years of full time earnings/raises/bonuses/etc.

> What they taught me in comp sci classes was horribly outdated or not representative of the jobs available.

Lessons about automata and computability aren't exactly 'outdated' but their application to typical software work seems very indirect/abstract. In any case, that was my experience from a CS degree ~20 years ago, probably similar now if the curriculum is similar.

Dijkstra: "Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes."

> Lessons about automata and computability aren't exactly 'outdated' but their application to typical software work seems very indirect/abstract

I hear this or similar things often but I don't really buy it. Sure, if you are doing super high stakes things and you need to optimize the hell out of something then you might be able to pull from concepts learned in college but I've seen new grads waste so much time on pre-optimization and honestly it's just not needed for so many things. Also I've had no issues learning concepts/algorithm/etc on the fly as-needed when performance was crucial. My college experience might be different than yours but having an EE teacher rail against and regularly make fun of web development as "not real development", losing 1 point on each answer of my database exam because I didn't put a semicolon at the end, and having to write a C program from scratch (headers and all) on paper for an exam are only a few examples of what turned me off the way my college taught computer science.

I feel the same way as you. In high-school I had a chance to do a "co-op" program (like being an intern for the American's) for a company. I did web development work there. I got offered a job there over the summer and continued to work there for 6 more summers while I went through University for software engineering.

The thing that is funny is that University didn't help me in that job at all. The vast majority of skills I used at the job were self-taught. A good chunk of those were self-taught before I even went to University.

University teaches a lot of theoretical and basically makes you teach yourself the practical. I started to realize that unless I planned to go the academia route and get more into the theoretical, then the degree was pretty useless to me. I ended up not completing the degree because it was just way too hard to stay motivated. It felt like I had to teach myself the important skills anyway, and then listen to stuff I could self-teach myself when I needed to know it.

When I had group projects a good chunk of classmates I worked with sucked at programming. Like they didn't know how to use git, sucked at object orientated program, etc... They would produce code that was just in one big massive single file. It was frustrating because the degree really just made a lot of people book smart, but they weren't actually that hirable.

I actually got to help with co-op hiring while I was in school for multiple years at the company I was with. When we would look at resumes the biggest thing I realized is that the degree wasn't really relevant. When almost every applicant has the identical degree it's not meaningful. What mattered was what kinds of things they did outside of school. What personal projects they had, what their github looked like, did they have their own website, were they involved in groups or starting their own sidegig websites, etc...

Our best candidates were the ones that did a lot of stuff outside of school. And the funny thing is that the majority of those candidates had bad grades. We got the transcripts with every co-op applicant.

Ignoring performance, if you're just doing business-specific behavior logic for whatever process needs to be assisted or automated by an IT system, so often you get complicated parts of that system logic that may get implemented as a tangled nest of if-statements but where the proper mental model actually is a finite state machine/automata - and if you see it that way, you can cover all the possible transitions and improve correctness.

I had issues with my college curriculum as well, but the biggest thing college did for me was end discrimination.

Without a degree, employers had to make a snapshot judgement call on whether or not I was good enough. They didn't see me. They saw my disability. After I got a degree, it was like some sort of checkbox had magically been checked, and the man who had fixed modem drivers in his teens was suddenly good enough to hire. I will also say that there are companies to this day that will not hire someone without a college degree, and I think it's stupid.

> I had issues with my college curriculum as well, but the biggest thing college did for me was end discrimination.

This isn't what you are talking about but one thing college did that I haven't mentioned is expose me to different people, cultures, etc that I was not exposed to in the bubble I grew up in. That is something I do value and I think there are social aspects of college that are useful. I'll also say that as a white male in the US there are doors that were opened to me that were not open to everyone so I can absolutely believe that college might be necessary (if only for a stupid piece of paper) for some people because of a number of factors outside of their control. I hate that our system works that way.

> I will also say that there are companies to this day that will not hire someone without a college degree, and I think it's stupid.

100% agree it's stupid but I just use it as another flag to not work at a company that is that short-sighted or stuck in the past (same way anti-remote-work companies are immediately written off for me).

Hehe, are you me? Dropped out in my 2nd year too. I went to university in Europe though, and have no loans to pay back.

Being a student definitely helped me get my break though, mainly due to the tax status. I had been programming for a decade when I got my first job, but everyone's shit and a drain on resources for a couple months regardless. Accepting peanut pay (relatively) + tax benefits made getting that first job easy.

The amount I learned in my first couple of months does not compare in any way to university. You cannot just go and get personal tutoring with a professor when you are having problems designing something. Meanwhile, it's the job of the senior engineers to be your babysitter at the start (bless the patience of the ones who taught me). And the few times you do get an audience, it's very short (as they have to see 50 other students), and much too vague. There's too little "you idiot, you do that and in 6 months you'll be sorry the DB is deadlocking". More "hm, do you not think you could turn this O(n*log(n) into O(log(n))", which, at the end of the day, I could probably care less for but not by much.

> You cannot just go and get personal tutoring with a professor when you are having problems designing something.

My experience in the US was that you could do exactly that. Except for the week before midterms and the week before finals, the professor's office hours were often empty. I could show up and have at least a 1/4, if not better, chance of getting one-on-one talks with someone skilled in their field about what they are working on. That was worth more than anything else I got out of college (except maybe the magic piece of paper that means more companies will interview me).

> What they taught me in comp sci classes was horribly outdated or not representative of the jobs available.

That hints of an underdiscussed pitfall when choosing colleges in "practical" fields like engineering and apparently nursing - the theory:practice orientation of their curriculum.

A theory oriented one tends to give you a backing which not eternal or life long, shift far slower. We may not use linked lists as much as hash maps but the same complexity analysis applies. If you are savvy enough you can pick up the specifics as needed backed by theory.

The disadvantage of a too heavily theory oriented one is bootstrapping to the workplace is more difficult and it may fail to establish proper habits like say how to properly write commits for version control.

A more practice oriented one which is proper for the current is more relevant and avoids the starting pitfalls but leaves the alumni less equiped with theory to deal with shifts. An outdated practical oriented curriculum is the worst of both worlds really.

Do you think you would have had a harder time getting that college SWE job if you weren't an active CS student?

I don't think so. My first job hired me because I had done some java programing in high school and they needed updates to an existing java tool. I did that work and they offered me PHP work (which I had taught myself in high school, I even wrote a few programs for the school) and I've been doing a mix of web dev (front and back) and mobile work ever since. In college they only taught C and Perl and I've never used either since then. I asked the owner of the second company I worked for (the place I was working when I dropped out) if getting a degree would change anything and he told me he paid me based on what I could do, not some piece of paper. That discussion, plus a full-time week of work that I enjoyed, and my dislike of my college classes pushed me to drop out.

Around the time of the dot-com bust, I had been interning at a network equipment company. They went under; those without college degrees to much longer to get new jobs, even one person I know who had over a decade of experience in the workforce.

That piece of paper can be worth a significant chunk of change, particularly since the gap on the resume caused by fewer companies hiring non-college grads can cause companies to low-ball their offers to you.

Maybe the job market is different now, but, even if it is, maybe it will be that way again in 5-10 years. Predictions are hard and all.

Also, CS degrees are varied. Very little of what I learned was outdated given that most of what I learned was discrete math. The more practically focused classes were OS and networking and I've used both of those on the job.

Not knowing what post-secondary school you went to it's worth saying that not all universities and colleges are equal. Don't go to a bad school. Don't go to a mediocre school even.

If all you need is an overpriced piece of paper to get your resume past the HR drones then there is little difference in outcome between a good school and a bad school.

55% of degrees from for-profit schools have a negative ROI, compared to 24% from public schools.


"Attending a very elite school and choosing the right field often has a significant payoff. The best program anywhere in the United States is the computer science major at the California Institute of Technology. Graduates of this well-regarded program can expect an ROI of $4.41 million over the course of their careers. Not far behind is the finance major at the University of Pennsylvania’s famous Wharton School, where lifetime ROI is $4.35 million."

Certain schools will get your resume past the "HR drones" when other schools will not, even within the same field of study.

We can debate whether top schools actually teach any better or whether they're just skimming off top students out of high school, but there's a significant difference in groups outcomes between schools.

You shouldn't have been looking for specific technology training is the short answer. I'm not aware of any company that would allow you to pay for employment while you were a drain... sounds like you should have gone to a vocational institution like Devry.

I still remember the letter that went around UT Austin's CS department when I was in grad school, from an undergraduate complaining that the department didn't teach i386 assembly.

as it's said in the commercials "results not typical"

> if I had it to do again I think I would have paid a company to intern for a few months until my output exceeded any "drain" my lack of knowledge incurred.

As a biology major who later had to turn to tech (sadly quite common as it turns out), I can sincerely empathize with this. Unfortunately, in the health sciences you cannot do this, even taking a low level lab position requires some level of college/university credit because of the samples you are dealing with (blood, tissue) and the requirements imposed by Law to ensure they gate-keep even though errors occur regardless of degree level in labs, which is why you take such large samples to begin with.

In my foray with tech I've made a career in fintech (co-founder then went to a Megacorp), after spending time in Supply Chain roles the auto Industry. In both of those fields you are encouraged to not follow the predecessor if you want to be successful and move up; it rewards you if can pull it off and bring something novel and add value to the Team/Operation. And that, more than anything I learned in University, stuck with me for reasons that I think you could understand.

After COVID derailed my Life, as it did others, I asked myself what I wanted to do and I decided to enroll into a BSc program in AI and Machine Learning, with the aspiration of doing what you just mentioned--getting a role before graduating by leveraging my existing skills and the new skills I'd learn with the brand of a University to back it up.

My entrepreneurial habits kicked in during the on-boarding process and I saw a need to create a payment processing system to pay for tuition as so many students (mainly international) at the University in question were forced to pay via a system which resulted in delays, missing deadlines and large fees to process if it were possible. Some students even had to resort to using Western Union to make the deadline!

This was at the time that Twitter had launched its Bitcoin tipping feature via iOS on it's platform, so a proof of concept/MVP could have been spun in short order.

Eventually the faculty sent out a memo condemning using any alternatives (they became aware of the conversations happeing in Slack chat) saying it would result in further delays (or inability to register at all) if they did, thus making it entirely moot to try and flesh anything out. It wouldn't be anything but a MVP, as being a middleman/clearing house doesn't serve any of my long term goals.

But what it could have done is disrupt the model and force progress to be made where it would otherwise remain stagnant.

With all that said, now that you're established in the Industry and you likely have Senior Dev status, how would you go about this: how could one pitch this in order to take you on for X sum of money and not have it fall on deaf ears?

I mean, I'm guessing YOU would be open to this given what you've said but how would your project managers react to this? I've held developer and consultant status at the aforementioned Megacorp and I had way more friction for more insipid things.

> With all that said, now that you're established in the Industry and you likely have Senior Dev status, how would you go about this: how could one pitch this in order to take you on for X sum of money and not have it fall on deaf ears?

This is something that I think about very often but I don't have a good answer to it. I started at $10/hr doing web dev work and in a short amount of time moved up to $15, $20, $25+ before moving to a salaried position. My best advice to other people is to teach yourself "enough to be dangerous" (online tutorials, code camps, etc) using a tech stack/framework that a local company uses and then apply at an intern-level. Then try to either work your way up at that company and/or pivot to another company after a year or so. For me it was Wordpress and Drupal, I found a local web dev/marketing shop and did that kind of work for them for about 3 years, during which I learned Laravel and Angular for personal and professional projects, before moving on to a product-based company and getting into more complex problems to solve. Personally I learn best by being forced to do something, as in "Build a site that does X, Y, Z" where I don't know how to accomplish X, Y, Z. I enjoy learning on the fly (Maybe I should call it JIT learning?) and having a goal I'm aiming for. Most of my comp sci education felt like "let's pour all these concepts into your head and hopefully you will remember them and they will be useful in the future", that kind of learning doesn't work well for me, I need to see it applied.

It's my goal to own my own company at some point and aside from figuring out a salary/pay structure that I'm comfortable with (something like ESOP) a big thing I'd want to do is offer an on-ramp for people who want to get into the industry. I've helped a friend go from an aborted CS education to working full time in the industry (I helped him learn enough Drupal to get hired at where I worked and then he took it from there) so I know it's possible and it's something I want to incorporate into a future company.

EDIT: As for project managers not buying in, I feel your pain, the sad thing is that it's such short-term thinking. Unfortunately they often don't have the political pull or desire to roll the dice on an unknown candidate and it only worked for me in past because I knew the candidate well, taught him myself, and vouched for him. That's not really sustainable IMHO and there needs to be a better way.

>Almost all students cite getting a better job as a primary reason for attending college.

I think it's interesting how the intent of college has changed from one of creating a philosophy of life to that of essentially a vocational school that may or may not teach the actual skills necessary for a job. From what I can tell this shift goes back as far as the Morrill Land Grant of 1890 in the U.S.

It's also interesting to me how much inertia the system has. When I talk to young students, many seem to go to college because "that's just what you do after high school" or pick a particular school simply because "everyone" has agreed that's a great school without being able to articulate why. Marry that to human resources who require degrees to filter applicants because that's the method "everyone uses" while not being able to articulate what relevant skills that particular degree confers to the job and you get a self-licking ice cream cone.

It's not so much high schooler choice or HR's inability to properly assess candidates (although that is also a factor). It's the emotional and material "stock" put into degrees by degree holders that guarantees that this system will remain in place. Most people do not have the strength of character to extricate their personal identity and value from their level of education.

Post-secondary credentialism is the new form of feudalism. This book is a little too woke for my tastes but there's a significant amount of scholarship on this concept of education's rise as the new "cool guy" power structure, replacing politics and the church.


>It's not so much high schooler choice or HR's inability to properly assess candidates (although that is also a factor). It's the emotional and material "stock" put into degrees by degree holders that guarantees that this system will remain in place

I think this might be saying the same thing but you did it more clearly. I’m saying people can’t objectively articulate why one choice is more valuable than the other largely because they are making emotional decisions and not rational, objective ones. Unless of course the rationale is “this is the way the game is played, regardless if it makes objective sense.” The irony, as you point out, is that just entrenches a silly system

Interesting book suggestion, I’ll check it out.

Hitler hated academics and todays political divides are also among levels of education. Just take a look at Trump supporters.

[0] https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/education-not-income-pr...

Well then it was more of a luxury for the gentry who didn't truly have to worry about money from the career itself in the same way. The classical university system wound up falling into aristocratic "disdain of the practical and worldly as base" flaw. Part of what drove the industrial revolution in the United Kingdom were the colleges of the heterodox, largely scottish which ended up providing the more practical but still sophisticated engineering schools. They lead to the "new money" captains of industry and middle class.

The two types of schools blended along the way of course and in other contexts. Trade-college blending is a very slow process but happening some. Farming is the furthest alarm but arguably that was an "agronomy and automation coup" as the model changed and made farm work a niche job instead of the majority.

The current system is related to more eglatarian mutation from hard class gatekeeping. Frankly that a lot of positions are flat out about justifying your actions to others as the practical skill component of the "philosophy of life". It is about getting what they measure for.

It has changed! But it's changed because class mix of the people going to college has changed. Wealthy people used to make up a significant proportion of people going to college. People who didn't need to work for money. Now it is more lower and middle class people, with different needs.

I think the real question is whether college fulfills those different needs and, if so, if it does it at a reasonable price.

At many orgs I’ve worked at, I felt like there were a lot of people who could have done the same work from a two year apprenticeship. Even though many had engineering degrees, I don’t think most brought an engineering mindset/education to the problems they faced on a daily basis, with the exception of some PIs

I think the only fix for this is to make it illegal for companies to list educational requirements in job postings.

Search for any entry level job in an office environment, how many list a college degree as a requirement? Anywhere north of 80% sends a message (Get a college degree or work for minimum wage).

This is my (maybe unpopular) take. I’m not sure many HR people can adequately assess the skills for a position, particularly technical ones. So they use education credentials as a lazy proxy. I’m not sure outlawing education requirements fixes this and may just result in some other lazy proxy like nepotism.

If they will still treat it as a de facto requirement, would lying on the job posting help anyone? I mean, in many professions there are a large number of applicants, and HR has to throw out many of the applications without interviewing anyway based on various not-that-strong signals.

The answer is in the subtitle, or summary, or whatever the first line is called: Some degrees are worth millions, while others have no net financial value. The biggest factor is your major.

I'm pretty sure everyone already knew that. I distinctly remember friends joking about how their major was worthless 20 years ago, and now see the same people complain about how they got suckered into taking a student loan they can never repay.

Some certainly know this. But easily NOT the majority. If they did know it, most people would stop getting worthless degrees or skip college!

They are mostly lemmings told to run off the cliff and they gladly fulfill their personal financial doom!!

Or people select those degrees for non-monetary reasons. I highly doubt anyone is getting a degree in religion for the earning potential. Similarly, there might be other non-monetary benefits, like social capital, for going into fields like art.

You're giving naive 17/18 year olds way too much of the benefit of the doubt. Your average education system doesn't wait until they're in the college prep high school to start drilling into them that going to college is their best option and that they need to start thinking about what they want to do for the rest of their lives even though they're not even legal adults. This shit happens so fucking fast that most kids don't even question it. You have your monthly meeting with your guidance councilor that barrages you with "so what major do you want to study? What schools have you looked at? Do you have a list of reach schools? Do you have your list of safety schools? Have you started any of this? Huh, huh, huh??????" and so you just go through the motions of it all and ultimately this is how we end up with only 1 in 4 kids actually finishing college.

Heaven forbid someone should study something for any reason other than money. I'm pretty sure humanities majors realize they're not maximizing their expected salary.

This is addressed in the article. It says:

> Almost all students cite getting a better job as a primary reason for attending college.

With a link to this study:


Which says:

> Students are increasingly placing a premium on the job-related benefits of going to college. The portion of incoming freshmen that cited "to be able to get a better job" as a very important reason for attending college reached an all-time high of 87.9 percent in 2012, an increase from 85.9 percent in 2011 and considerably higher than the low of 67.8 percent in 1976.

> Almost all students cite getting a better job as a primary reason for attending college.

You're asking a bunch of teenagers about their life plans, or a bunch of 20-somethings to talk about something they put more energy into than they've ever put into anything in their entire short lives. Every adult in the room should realize that it's 80% bullshit rationalization.

What I've learned through many hobbies and non-academic classes across many disciplines is that there's a kernel of truth to the Kung Fu movie story arc. The instructor tells you what you need to hear right now, not the objective truth. Sometimes it's carrot, other times it's just keeping you from injury. You 'level up' every time the story changes, and you graduate when you see the training wheels and take them off. This 'rule' is just a guideline and you can break it in these situations.

What kids need to hear is that a few more years of hard work now will get them an easier life later on. They hear 'career' but college gets most of us out of whatever little bubble our parents and neighborhoods put us in. You are not in a little pond anymore and it doesn't matter how big of a fish you thought you were. It softens the blow when you graduate and discover the ocean.

If we didn't learn to build bridges in high school, we learned to build them in college. All of these things do help you in life, including your career, but typically it's indirectly. But you try telling a 16 year old who has just started looking at college pamphlets this and many just think it's more parental lecturing radio gaga.

What they believe is the bait. And hopefully by the time they see it for what it is, it's no big deal because they've got other motivations instead.

I feel like that's a chicken and egg issue, though. People who work in the humanities know they aren't going to make much, but they 100% will make more than if they try to get a job in the humanities without college. Most require a bachelor degree, at a minimum, regardless of salary.

So what's the solution there?

> they 100% will make more than if they try to get a job in the humanities without college.

This is true, but is only part of the equation. You also need to factor in:

* The probability of them getting a humanities job.

* The cost of college.

If college is expensive and most humanities majors don't end up with humanities jobs, then your statement can be 100% but still a net loss for humanities majors in aggregate.

That is a fair assessment, and I would really, really like to see accurate data around that question.


As a side note - the first person to make a billion dollars from educational data will figure out how to gather accurate, unbiased data from all schools/colleges for accurate comparison data. Not even interpret the data, just gather it.

Because right now, working in the belly of the higher ed beast for decades and decades, I can tell you that any data you see has been scrubbed and scrubbed and interpreted as to make it functionally useless to compare programs within institutions, let alone separate institutions.

And yet the proportion going after a business or finance degree is less than 100%.

That's kinda the point of the article: people are choosing majors and universities based on false advertising that it will improve their career prospects, while in reality for some it worsens it.

I'm fine with that so long as you can afford your education. If your salary won't pay of the loans, then it is a bad investment and you shouldn't get a loan. That doesn't means you shouldn't study humanities, only that you shouldn't study until you have enough saving to afford it. Or you can take a couple courses in humanities (which you are required to anyway as generals) while majoring in something that will give you a good income.

When you get a loan then financial concerns of is this a good investment should apply. If you don't have a loan - many people spend their money on all kinds off weird hobbies.

The issue I have with this, is there isn't a good solution currently. If you can afford it means that it's only for the wealthy, closing doors for people based on their parents income. That's not right.

But it also shouldn't cost so damned much.

I agree it costs too much, and as a result we aren't getting all the advantages of education. That is a different issue though.

I can't believe you find the concept of this even offensive, kids are taking out crippling loans to go to college in order to better their social standing and be self-sufficient adults by and large. Ignoring the ROI on college is a luxury that the vast majority of college students can't ignore.

Colleges often market themselves/degrees as salary levers. Even if you aren’t trying to maximize your expected salary it is unexpected for programs to have negative ROIs. I also think the analysis is deliberately narrow in only discussing the financial aspects and not the many other benefits which are harder to measure. The headline is awful because it ignores these other things. I majored in humanities and consider my experience to have been remarkably valuable, but the fact that there were benefits along other dimensions doesn’t invalidate analysis of one dimension (one that is commonly held up in marketing materials).

We're stuck on the market value of a major with no regard for the less tangible benefits to society a discipline may bring. Teaching someone X makes them better at producing business widget Y. But we can't put a monetary value on teaching someone Z to make them a better neighbor, a better voter, healthier, less polluting, etc.

College doesn’t do those things.

The people who teach those things in schools, or run programs to encourage them, or inspire them in art, etc tend to be those who pursue those majors with lower ROI. Study of history, philosophy, psychology, civics, and the like helps us pass on qualities that aren't needed to make business widgets.

Do they? Where is the evidence that people who study these things acquire qualities they didn’t already have?



* Health and life expectancy.

* Family life and marriage.

* Fertility and infant mortality.

* Intergenerational effects.

* Time allocation patterns.

* Asset management.

* Consumption behavior.

* Social cohesion.

* Adoption of new technologies.

* Crime reduction.

The links you posted have absolutely nothing to do with the assertion that “Study of history, philosophy, psychology, civics, and the like helps us pass on qualities that aren't needed to make business widgets.”

We need a term for the practice responding to requests for evidence by posting academic papers which do not contain the evidence.

I thought the question was, "Where is the evidence that people who study these things acquire [qualities that aren't needed to make business widgets] they didn’t already have?"

Your rewrite of the question misses out the “Do they?”, which links my question to the claim made by the poster I was replying to. That is the context of the question.

The links you posted don’t answer that question. They have nothing to do with the study of those subjects, only the generic act of getting a degree.

Indeed those papers show the converse of the OP’s claim - they show that you do not need to study those subjects to get those benefits - any degree will do.

Unfortunately in the U.S, it's not really an option if you want to have a high quality of life unless you have rich parents.

I've noticed that the majority of maintainers of a couple of high profile Linux distros are all European; the opportunity cost of doing so in the U.S. is just too high.

Well, there is also the fact that there are fewer really good tech jobs in Europe that would hire those maintainers. (I am European).

Depends what part. some areas of Europe are very cheap, others very expensive.

> Heaven forbid someone should study something for any reason other than money.

Yeah, I was grossed out when I read this. Glad I wasn't alone.

The article expressly says that there are other benefits besides financial, for going to college and choosing a major, and that those reasons make sense and are valuable. But that students should make that choice with their eyes wide open.

So this complaint is a bit of a straw man.

> The article expressly says that there are other benefits besides financial […]

Yeah, one sentence or so in an entire article almost entirely about money.

That's nothing but an alibi or some sort of decorative item, meant as distraction from the rest of the perversion.

people gotta eat

If only humanities majors didn't later request that their loans be cancelled and constantly rant on Facebook/Discord/... about how the society is "unfair" because they are poor. It all ends up being about dollar ROI in the end...

If you look at how expensive education is in the US, as well as rapidly rising cost of living, this perspective is incredibly naive.

Money cannot buy everything, but it can solves a lot of problems.

You missed the point.

The studying is not the problem anyone is talking about. People should study anything and everything they desire. The problem being addressed is spending a lot of money and taking out massive loans in order to study.

If you want to study Art, by all means definitely study Art. Just do not borrow $100,000 to do it.

It does seem possible to audit many college courses without paying. Perhaps that would be a cheaper avenue for someone pursuing the knowledge rather than the degree.

After graduating I chose to audit 30 credits per semester for a year (for free, and while no longer being a student).

It's in the summary you didn't read...

> Four in five engineering programs have ROI above $500,000, but the same is true for just 1% of psychology programs.

This kind of ROI analysis -- along with rankings, management theory, and other woes that have befuddled the aims of a college education -- has really had an interesting effect. Fewer graduates of 4 year colleges are proficiently literate. Our entire education system is sacrificing its baseline purpose (to preserve and inculcate literacy) for really poor concepts like "job prospects."

What do you mean by "proficiently literate"?

The only definition I've ever seen of literacy is the ability to read/write, with no requirement that the writing be particularly eloquent. I don't know of any college that would accept illiterate students (with the possible exception of the truly blind, who might have accommodations to use audio for all tests). It would therefore be impossible for a graduate of a 4 year college to be illiterate.

Given the financial burden it now poses, you'd have to be insane to attend college without picking a major which will help you to pay off your student loans. I don't know whether you know anyone with $80,000 in student loans and a $25,000/year income... It's not pretty.

Imagine a much higher price. Would it still be worth it if the degree cost 10 million USD? How about 50 million?

At some point anyone is going to acknowledge that the price isn't worth it. The ROI matters to absolutely everyone, without exception.

If you enjoy it, buy the books/textbooks and save the rest of the money.

Or pure math majors for that matter!

I believe there are two kinds of colleges, the Rich Kids Daycare (RKD) and the Trade & Professional Formation (TPF).

RKD doesn't always have a ROI, but it doesn't need to - people attending those are usually very rich. They just want to stay four years away from their families, attending a multitude of classes, play instruments, join clubs and create their network of similar minded rich kids. They can stay even longer than the required time, for extra activities or pursuing a masters. Then they'll move on and get good jobs due to the social value of their diploma and network, and start to learn their jobs by actually doing them. Maybe those jobs aren't that good and don't pay so much, but it's in their passion and they have old money to spend on their passions.

TPF is for the not so privileged people, for the ones who have no energy to waste, need to learn useful stuff in the least amount of time. ROI is essential to those and if they could pay less, learn stuff on Coursera and get good jobs, they would.

So when accounting for the ROI of a college tuition, one must first separate the institutions into those two buckets, for clearer results.

This is an attractive narative but doesn't stand up to even initial scrutiny. Where does an engineering degree from a decent public school fit? What about a law degree from an ivy? Where do you place a teaching degree from a small private or religious university?

It has nothing to do with the institution, it is about the major. A Gender Studies degree from Harvard has a negative ROI.

> I believe there are two kinds of colleges, the Rich Kids Daycare (RKD) and the Trade & Professional Formation (TPF).

jesus christ can we stop trying to redefine bourgeoisie and proletariat? what is with americans and hating karl marx and darwin

It's pretty egregious. Every time there is a discussion on HN that involves wealth (wealth inequality, trends for different wealth levels, intergenerational wealth, wealth taxes, etc...), people end here up basically redefining bourgeoisie and proletariat three levels down into the comment thread, and getting it slightly wrong in different ways each time.

That's because a bunch of people who have houses in nice school districts, drive nice cars, have plenty of PTO, can afford a maid/babysitter, etc, etc, would rather redefine bourgeoisie than acknowledge that they're part of the bourgeoisie per the standard definition. Current social trends toward redefining words on a whim for rhetorical and ideological convenience certainly exacerbate the issue.

But that in and of itself is not even being bourgeois, it's middle class in the standard definition.

American definitions of "class" are just a way to obscure the lines between the owners and the workers. Most middle class people are petite bourgeoisie or labor aristocracy proletariat

I don’t see how this analysis identifies the causal factor. Do some college programs select students already on a trajectory to succeed? I would love to see an analysis comparing ACT/SAT scores and lifetime earnings for those that did and did not attend college. Still, I find the insights of this article important to the college debate

Indeed, even at the college level, the universities in my state give each incoming freshman a math exam, and the results of that exam are for all intents and purposes a "sorting hat" for whether you can even get into particular majors. This is even before the first day of classes.

I think that's basically every university. That being said, its just a way to test out of math reqs to hit minimums for starting certain major tracks. No reason someone couldn't take the math courses at university in a general ed. major and then transfer over.

I don't have a large personal sample size, but 1.) I'm pretty sure giving a math test to incoming students isn't standard in the US. In any case, they generally already have SAT/ACT scores. 2.) Furthermore, in many (though not all) cases, once you're enrolled you can major in whatever you want.

I'm only familiar with the University of Wisconsin system. They use the math test to slot you into levels ranging from calculus to a remedial math course. Don't know why they don't just use SAT/ACT.

As for majors, there are limited admissions into some programs such as engineering and business, where you are not formally admitted until after your first year, and have to make a certain GPA. Not all majors had such requirements.

Then there were some unique situations. Majoring in music performance required an audition, and the incoming students tended to be playing at a very high level.

Do some college programs select students already on a trajectory to succeed?

This is interesting and I know there was some studies performed, not on the program, but on the school. IIRC, the results were that it wasn't the school that contributed to success, but the person. Meaning, if you were accepted to a top-tier school but attended a lower-tier one, you had as much success as the people who attended the top-tier school. So, as you say, the schools were already selecting for those who were on a trajectory to succeed. There was a caveat that the school did provide more help if the person was from a low-socioeconomic background, and I've wondered if that is due to network effects.

You can’t establish causation in an observational study like this one. You’d have to conduct an experiment to do that, and people don’t usually want to leave their careers up to double-blind. There’s still value in measuring the correlation.

However, it accounts for things like dropout status, so I don’t think your hypothesis fits the data.

Sometimes it is possible to establish causation from only observational data, but in general, you are correct. Without the ability to conduct an experiment, the best we can do is use college acceptance criteria for screening candidates to compare populations that attend and do not attend. The best we can do is better than nothing

I can't seem to find it, but there was a report from a few years back that compared an income prediction based solely on incoming student demographics (using a regression model on things like parental income and education levels) with graduates' actual income a few years out. It still doesn't prove causality, but if there's a big difference between the two in the positive direction, it at least suggests the university is providing some kind of actual value-add, vs just passing through students who were already from a high socioeconomic background.

I use this framing quite a bit ("The best we can do is better than nothing"), but I don't really like it. A better framing is that it's not how much we can figure out, it's what we can we figure out.

Observational data is great for explaining things after the fact. It must be handled very carefully when used for predicting things before they happen. But if you can identify the most likely confounds and eliminate them, you may still be able to answer a lot of useful questions to a fair degree of certainty.

This is fair. I was familiar with methods of evaluating causality, but didn't think it applied here since it hadn't occurred to me to design the study that way. Yet another lesson in "just because I can't think of it doesn't mean it can't be done."

You could design an experiment that looks at people who were accepted into a program correlated to higher wages but went to a different program instead. (E.g., accepted to an engineering school but went to a psychology program).

I think it goes deeper than that, although you're making an incisive point.

The value is sort of in how the degrees are used as well. Increasingly, they're being seen as licenses of sort, even though that might not be the intent of the program or even reflect the actual experiences of the person in college. That is, the ROI is due as much to the marketplace as it is the degree itself. If HR departments decide that understanding of DL/AI requires a degree in comp sci, even if someone did an honors thesis on that as a psychology major, demonstrating a new proof-of-concept DL model, it doesn't matter what sort of talent is being recruited. Is it the degree holder, the degree, the program, or the employer?

I feel like college degrees have become this kind of signalling label, like much of the modern world, like clothing or something. That's not to discount the skills one obtains as part of a major, but it hurts the person who is going outside the box (in a good way). There's also something disingenuous then, about treating degrees as a resource to be obtained, when the value of that resource is entirely dependent on the way it is treated by others. That is, a hammer is more useful than a rotting stick, but if for whatever reasons there's rotting stick mania, the ROI will be greater for the latter. That doesn't mean the ROI analysis is wrong, but it might give a misleading impression about why.

I admit I didn't read this in enough detail, but I had other questions as well. For instance, in other similar analyses I've read in other outlets, they've explicitly ignored people who have graduate degrees, as it muddies interpretation. But isn't that important? What about the person who gets an undergrad degree in psychology, but then pursues symbolic logic programming and DL models in their master's program in comp sci? Or who goes on to medical school? Some of these degrees, like philosophy, are notorious for being pre-professional degrees, and comparing a BA-only philosophy grad to a BA-philosophy + JD is a little odd, both because it's unfair, but also because the person who gets a BA in philosophy and then stops is maybe different from the person who gets that degree as part of a longer-term plan that includes law school.

Or, what about factoring in long-term and steady stability as being "worth it"?

There's definitely a bit of insurance and fallback with having higher education that isn't measurable simply by some ROI analysis.

There are a lot of jobs you will never be able to apply to if things go south simply by not meeting the minimum requirements. I was considering a dirt-cheap online MBA once simply for this reason if my biz stuff died (did not pursue).

I assume the conclusions change considerably when you plug in non-American numbers?

My degrees were about 1/8th the price of many U.S. peers’, which made them more palatable given that my original career was looking at a lifetime ceiling of maybe $90k CAD.

Sometimes I wish these articles would include "in the US" in the title. "Is College in the US Worth It? A Return on Investment Analysis"

Americans write articles for an American audience and don't ever acknowledge the existence of other countries.

Yes it's just a coincidence that we can hear them talk. Almost nobody outside of China is going to read articles written in Chinese because we don't speak that language.

From an ROI perspective, college in the US is not worth it for all but a few degree programs. The university I graduated from in the early 90's (on scholarship) was at the time the most expensive college in the US but now most public schools cost more than that.

Something not accounted for in these studies is financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, and loans. That will radically change the ROI for individual students.

The paper shows that the ROI for college in the US is positive for many, but not all, majors and schools. It’s literally the entire point of the paper, complete with data, graphs and the rest.

Not as positive as some might think, and there are a significant number of losers, but only “a few degree programs” being positive is not supported by the data.

ROI may be positive for many programs but still only worth it for a few of them.

What difference do you imply between a positive ROI and "worth it" ?

Of course. In other countries it's affordable and going to college becomes a no-brainer.

I don't think it's a no-brainer. You spend a lot of time in college, and it would be interesting to see how much information/learnings you could ingest on your own time, compared to what they would give you in college.

Many people (but probably not everyone) would be better off not going to college at all, and start learning/working on their own, especially if they have specific interests instead of not knowing what they want to do.

In college you are not 'given' information/learnings, you actually have to do the work and selection to 'get' that yourself. At least, that is how it works here (EU). If you don't pro-actively do this, you simply won't succeed (and from a ROI perspective that would be a bad one).

The big difference between 'in' college and 'outside' or 'on your own' is context; the facilities, culture and exchange of ideas available to you in a college setting are very different from anything else. Especially when to take the sandbox element in to account.

There are also many fields in which receiving “expert” feedback is a substantial part of the learning process.

And on top of that there is the difference between studied subjects and experienced subjects. There is no golden 'do this, get everything' path. Going to college or university doesn't mean there is nothing you need to learn in a work context. Same goes the other way: only learning things at work means you probably get a lot less abstract underpinnings and overarching context (or you might get none at all) which reduces understanding of your surroundings significantly.

The first iterations of school (in the first one or or two decades of life) are mostly "learning how to deal with people", "learning how to learn", "learning within a context" and after all that you get to "learn how to make use of what you have learned" in the real world. The earlier you stop, the fewer tools you'll have for the rest of your life.

There would be two avenues that are somewhat distinctive: academia which blends school-type context into work-type context at some point, and there is vocational training which reduces school-type context earlier and eliminates it before you're even "out of school". Neither are 'bad' or 'good', just different paths.

I agree. I feel like there should be a credentialing system where you can 'test into' knowledge for specific course loads and however the person (at their own pace) arrives at that knowledge is considered secondary to whether they pass the test.

It's sensible to require one or two years of in-person study but requiring the whole 4 years seems like a potential waste of time due to the differences in maturity, social development, and focus among college aged students.

Depends on how you calculate it.

If had become say a plumber instead of going to university, had lived as cheap as a student with a plumber salary and invested the surplus 100 percent in the stock marked that would be a lot of money now many years later. I prefer not to calculate it.

You'd be surprised. Take Spain: College is very cheap, but in 2014, the median student that graduated was 27... and that was with a plain degree. This also didn't mean that most of their college degrees were on any topic that helped their job prospects. If you spend most of your 20s working hard on a course of study that doesn't lead to a career that pays much better than minimum wage, going to college sure isn't a no-brainer. This isn't purely a matter of motivation, but of the quality of their school, their interest in teaching, and setting sensible exams. My US college had plenty of Spanish engineering students which had gotten nowhere in their Spanish college, and were doing very well under the US system. Nothing like seeing engineers now at NASA that were unable to pass a single class in their first year in Madrid.

Salaries can also be quite different across borders. Studying computer science in the US isn't cheap, but the jobs available right when you are done are not paying anywhere near the same as those of the Spanish developer. You see American companies opening software shops in the least developed parts of Europe, and a big part of it is that you might be getting up to 5 developers for the price of one. I emigrated because I knew that the Spanish college route was far more dubious than a pretty average US college, even paying for the whole thing.

So a no-brainer? Hardly. And the life path that makes sense in 2010 might not make all that much sense in 2030. Just like someone that became a mining engineer, specializing in coal, had a very different career if he made his choice in the 1950s, vs doing the same in 2005.

I went to a college in a developing country and I regret it. I didn't lose money, but I wasted a lot of time and didn't really learn much (or rather, I did learn things during college, but not because of it). The lectures were unbearably boring and I didn't socialize much. More than anything, I hate the fact that I was too much of a coward to drop out once I realized how miserable I was doing all the fake and pointless work that was assigned to me. I forgot to say, I studied computer science.

Not really. Many of those countries have lower proportion of college degrees than the US. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_tertiary_...)

If cost isn't an issue, I wonder what prevents more from getting degrees?

But is it easy to get in? Most English speaking Europeans you can talk to (barring the UK, etc) are in the above average category for their country. A lot of people may only speak their mothertongue or another European language that is not English.

The "college experience" was worth it for me. I hung around a bunch of losers and do-nothings in high school. When I got to college (by way of California community college), it was amazing to associate with people who had ambition and an overall optimistic outlook on life. I had never associated with people like that before and never been in an environment like that before, and it helped me grow as a person like I never imagined possible.

When people talk about the "college experience", I think they're often talking about partying, which I think is unfortunate, because for me the "college experience" was worth every penny.

Note that this is a narrow look based on salaries. Education levels correlate with a wide range of other things.

For example, from the CDC:

> Adults without a high school degree or equivalent had the highest self-reported obesity (38.8%), followed by adults with some college (34.1%) or high school graduates (34.0%), and then by college graduates (25.0%).

9 percentage points is a considerable difference. One in eleven people.

Obesity is linked with a host of health conditions, both chronic and acute. These incur higher medical costs.

Lower education levels also highly correlate with susceptibility to misinformation, watching more television, and lower self-reported life satisfaction.

Comparing salaries isn’t all that useful in measuring the impact of education.

On the other hand, maybe people who can successfully graduate college are more conscientious, and are better able to maintain a healthy diet. Proper diet and exercise isn't rocket science, it's just hard to find the motivation to do it.

If people rely on motivation to have a proper diet and exercise, that sounds very painful. Motivation is a very fleeting feeling, something more sustained has to be in place. Instead I think it comes down to the habits that people have developed. Motivation does help in starting that ball rolling, but once you have developed a habit of doing something, it becomes a lot easier.

Motivation gets you started, discipline gets it done. Much the same with college. I was not good with math, but I busted my ass studying at the 'math lab' in college, so much so that the TAs said they were going to start charging me rent :^). The sort of person who's motivated and disciplined enough to get a college education is probably the sort that can stick with a diet and not buy that delicious looking strawberry cheesecake at the bakery (ummph).

I don't know, I ate a ton of junk food in college due to stress eating while studying haha. But completely agree with your points!

Yea I really wish articles like this would include other factors too. Having a college degree lowers your chances of getting a significant amount of health problems

Seems more likely that not being prone to significant health problems enables you to find greater success in school.

Level of education is correlated with myopia. Spending time outside in sunlight tends to prevent myopia.

correlation != causation

Here's a goodly list of other benefits: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259912440_On_the_no...

My opinion. Private tutors are much cheaper then college.

During covid we made use of them for elementary age kids since they were falling behind on every subject.

The effectiveness was drastic. So much so that we stopped because they got so far ahead of the class.

Figure at 20,000 a year will cover a lot of private lessons with experts in most fields.

One wants to be a vet. So that will probably be more traditional.

The point of college isn't to learn. It's to get a white collar job. To get a white collar job you need a network and a diploma, private tutor gives you neither.

The problem with this oft trotted out theory is that:

• Extraverts don't need college to network - the skill is to innate they never need an expensive excuse

• Introverts won't learn to network even if put into an ideal environment for doing it - most people who claim university didn't enable networking are usually introverts

• This leaves people are in the middle of being extroverted or introverts who need just a nudge. That's less than 5% of the population - so the claim of "networking" is mostly only helping a tiny minority and doesn't benefit the majority.

I'm one of those middle people in the last group and quite honestly I didn't even benefit - I wasn't "ready" for the opportunity. Once I had a job in my industry, that's when it "all made sense" and tapped into my extrovert side to enormous advantage.

My current job primarily involves tapping into that post-university network for sales leads, collaboration partners, vendor opportunities, etc. I only recently got in touch with my university friends and most "weren't useful" to what I do today. One switched from EE to Gerontology. Another is still mentally in university (don't ask). Most aren't in fields I interact much with despite nominally being EE grads.

It is much easier to network in college, no matter how extraverted you are. Career fairs commonly require you to be a student to attend, so I'm not sure how being an extravert accomplishes anything for the most common way for students to network.

Anyway, the diploma is what's actually important. Most white collar jobs won't even look at you if you don't have one.

As you note, "networking" is often just having access to college career fairs, where companies go to hire for the internships which are required for subsequent employment.

I had a stable, white collar job approximately midway through college. Some of the best engineers I've worked with in my career don't have a degree. This wasn't that long ago either.

The network reasoning for college is vastly overstated.

You just made a good argument for eliminating college. Or at least any tax payer money for it.

What... did that run per kid, roughly, if you don't mind my asking? Was this remote? Where did you find tutors? How much parental oversight is needed? How much time in management of tutors is required—are they consistently reliable, how much time looking for replacements when they change jobs or whatever, that kind of thing?

We've gone with a private school because we've got a couple elementary-aged kids who are far enough ahead that public schools were plainly holding them back and we were already starting to get early signs of "gifted kid who isn't challenged then crashes and burns later" syndrome, but if tutors are at least as effective, and cheaper, that'd be awesome.

50 an hour. We had a foreign language and english reading writing.

Local tutor.

Spent around 1000 a month between two kids at the most expensive month, depending on need. I handled math.

Both severe ADHD. So class room setting is hard on them.

Now that they are ahead and back in classroom they are doing fine.

Thanks for the information. $1,000/m for two kids in two subjects isn't as bad as I thought it'd be.

> Both severe ADHD. So class room setting is hard on them.

We've dealt with a bit of that. No fun for any of the parties involved.

> Now that they are ahead and back in classroom they are doing fine.

Awesome. Always such a relief when kid-stuff goes the right way. Then you can rest up for when you're thrown the next curve-ball :-)

I paid $0 for a Computer Science degree in a poor country. It was absolutely worth it. We used the very same books as the most prestigious US universities as a basis for our courses, we learned the exact same things, and now that I work with people who paid a ton of money for those degrees I don't feel disadvantaged at all. Cormen, Knuth, Hennesy & Patterson, Tanenbaum, Ulman, you name it.

Sometimes I know a little about a topic but, but the University gave me the framework so that I can learn anything computer-science related with a much smaller effort compared to those without a degree.

That said, I do recognize the name of the university on their CVs does draw more attention and may make them have an advantage during job hunting. Also, their powerful contacts acquired over there. But once we're in the same room, we're equal.

This article should be required reading for every student considering college. Most students choose majors as a path to career. Knowing that some majors are entirely unsuited to that end, or that for-profit schools are very inferior to not-for-profits, could save a lot of grief later.

A mass student diaspora away from useless majors also might force universities to finally rethink their priorities, which at present serve most students poorly and at insane cost.

I got a BS in zoology (followed by a MS in CS). Had I known the truly terrible prospects for a biology degree, I would certainly have chosen a subject more interesting than memorizing the latin monnikers of minutiae, especially if I knew I could later rely on a MSCS to do the heavy lifting.

Biology is one of those weird degrees, like many of the sciences. A BS in anthropology, for example, is completely worthless except as a step on the way to a PhD in anthropology (at which point you get to do anthropology or archaeology, or whatever).

Biology is also a very special case: all of the bio majors I've ever met were pre-med. (Except for that one guy who wanted to go into genetics research.)

> The best program anywhere in the United States is the computer science major at the California Institute of Technology

That's interesting because in most rankings I've seen of US CS programs Caltech's comes in around 5-10 from the top.

Which ones rank above Caltech depends on the particular organization doing the rankings, but schools that in at least some well known lists place above Caltech in CS include CMU, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Cornell, U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia Tech, U of Washington, Princeton, UT Austin, Harvey Mudd, Harvard, UCLA.

That a CS program is the best investment monetarily is not surprising, but I would have expected it to one of the higher ranked programs from a school better known for CS.

I wonder if the small sample size distorts the figures. Caltech has only ~220 undergrad students per year (across all majors). And it seems there are two similar majors split up into separate rows.

1; California Institute of Technology; Computer and Information Sciences, General; $4,409,147

22; California Institute of Technology; Computer Science; $2,812,200

Before the early 2000s there wasn’t a separate CS major, just a related concentration within Engineering and Applied Science (which is what the degree was awarded in) IIRC

You might want to ask Caltech CS majors about this, I wasn’t one but I took a few CS classes when I was there and they definitely lacked an OS class, for example.

Among other things, the state schools are cheaper.

That said, Caltech is a surprising choice.

Campus proximity to Bay Area.

That was my guess, too. I would liked to have seen the ROI adjusted for cost-of-living, but I suspect that's a lot of work to get that data and integrate it into the analysis.

Is it really close enough to the Bay Area to make a difference? It's in the Los Angeles area. It's about a 7 hour drive from Caltech to San Francisco.

Fair point. And there's Stanford too..

Result aligns with my expecations today, but not my expectations in High School, which well...is why we have so many people in my age cohort (millennial) who think they got a raw deal.

Yup, this data is better suited for reflection than prediction. 20 years ago this study would have drawn some very different conclusions.

What can I say? The Computing Science degree I took is absolutely the single biggest investment giving greatest RoI for me financially, for intellectually, and for longevity of working experience.

But the costs are driven higher due to federal loans. If we stop Uncle Sam being an underwriter for college loans then the market will collapse, bringing prices down, IMO.

It may have led to you getting a job, but putting aside that checkbox on your resume/CV, do you think it's worth it in a general sense?

When I'm hiring for tech roles, I personally couldn't care a jot about whether or not the candidate has a degree. If someone already knows how to code, do DevOps or whatever, what would a degree really add, apart from making sure candidates had gone through the same debt-gathering process that I had?

For background, I do have a Computing degree, but have often wondered what the real point was, and what the real point behind companies gatekeeping based on degrees is.

It really depends on the college attended. I transferred to Berkeley and majored in Philosophy, with the intent of going to law school after.

I was interested in tech stuff and got a campus job doing linux administration which led me to my current career.

Even though I didn't enjoy the major _that_ much, attending a top ranked school was absolutely worth it for both the connections and opportunities. Transferring made it absolutely worth, would most likely not be the case if I had to take out lots of loans.

The article doesn't seem to discuss post-grad education at all, including law school, med school, etc.

Why are we still doing education the same way it was done in the 1880s? The best technology in the 1880s was books and classrooms led by a professor. Our universities today look identical to that.

Now we can build a university online where every lesson is taught by the absolute best teacher in that one narrow area. Every new lesson you do, maybe 5 to 10 per day, would be taught by the very best teacher for that one particular topic. A different teacher from who taught the lesson could even prepare the quizzes for that topic.

Alternatively, I have been working for the last 8 months on YouTube to give myself a university level education in the construction trades. I have watched hundreds of hours of educational content on dirt work, concrete pours, framing, drywall, roofing, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, tile work, and finish features. I have built a shed using basically residential framing, and I am working on a second one now. Following this I'm going to build a small residence with a large garage, then I'm going to build a large residence. I am just doing this for my own hobby basically, but anybody who wanted to become a home builder can now do so just with the content online.

There are some benefits that are hard to evaluate. For example a higher education that promotes critical thinking and allows one to have a good understanding of reality, can save you millions of dollars on snake oils of all kinds and useless drugs. I think considering only salary prospects is a bit shallow.

Sort of a rip-off of Aaron Clarey's books (written >10 years ago). It's specifically covered in his book "Worthless".



His other books are also insightful though go against the grain of many who want to believe in fantasies, fairy tales and unicorns (but will inevitably be disappointed and too late).

> But the financial returns to college vary widely depending on the institution a student attends and the subject he or she studies.

Let's not forget grit. That is, a given individual's drive and willingness to persist, to move forward. That is a key source of energy, and a critical chacter trait.

Unfortunately, adversity is out of fashion, and coddling is in. Yes, of course. There's luck and other intangibles. But simply showing up isn't good enough.

The point being: no one has a more significant impact on the ROI of your education than you do.


I like that they calculate net opportunity cost, as foregoing 4 years of salary after the age of 30 can be equal or greater than the benefit of having the degree. Intuitively, it seems like the financial benefit of a degree appears to be proportional to the price of a house in an area where graduates of a given program live.

This analysis seems mainly for US citizens, as the big value of a degree for people outside the US is the preference for graduates for immigration and expat job opportunities. Without a degree, you are competing mainly in your national vertical job market, whereas with one degree or more, you have a horizontal job market around the world. The opportunity for graduates in the job market is many orders of magnitude greater, and without a degree, your competition in your national market comes from the best in every other country, who are using their education as leverage to get into the US/CA/UK etc. Direct ROI is only a proxy for these other factors.

Finishing a degree is the dominant strategy, and I'd say the conditions under which it might seem reasonable or strategic to not do one is if you already own a home in a city outright, own a successful business that generates the equivalent of a decade or more of earnings in passive income, or are succeeding at a fame-work business with lifetime level returns where the opportunity isn't there after the age of 25-30. Otherwise, even in these, and almost every other situation, you should go to school.

> Seventeen different programs at New York University have negative ROI, with the worst among them (music) leaving students over $500,000 in the hole.

Great article. This is nuts.

College only has two economic benefits: human capital improvement and signaling of values. My personal experience is my rate of learning in college was much less than on the job experiences. College honestly made me learn how to learn because the lecture model that colleges use does not work well for me. My college benefit was 25% human capital improvement and 75% signaling of values. Also, it was a lot of fun.

I didn't go to college for a number of reasons some of which i stand by to this day and others are the result of being a arrogant teenager.

I want to go back for a career change, I feel, at least from an education and career perspective I could get more from it than I would had I chose to go at 17/18, though I'd only get a fraction of the social benefits.

The thing is, I still am incredibly on the fence about the ROI. The problem is that no matter what, at this age (still pretty young) going back to school will suck my two most valuable resources: time and money significantly. The bureaucracy surrounding higher education (US context) is basically unhackable in my experience and the way its set up, the longer I wait, the higher the time cost, but if I try to go back ASAP the monetary cost is too heavy.

Going back would probably use up the rest of my "youth" (not that I'm doing much with it either way) and almost certainly lead to a lower lifetime earning amount (though by what degree is dependent on a number of things) which are both fine, if things work out ideally.

If not, the ROI is ridiculously low.

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