David Leonhardt claims to have settled this question in his recent New York Times column. He cites a recent study showing that even people in professions that don’t need a college degree benefit financially from having one. I’m sure this is true, as far as it goes, but he is only answering one part of the question: Is a college degree worth it? Yes. As a credential, for the most part, it is worth getting a degree if you want to make more money. And since most American students are not paying the high costs of private 4-year colleges, they are making a reasonable investment given the return they can expect.
But what about the actual substance of what they learn at college? Is that worth anything? Leonhardt sort of gives up on that one:
Even a much-quoted recent study casting doubt on college education, by an N.Y.U. sociologist and two other researchers, was not so simple. It found that only 55 percent of freshmen and sophomores made statistically significant progress on an academic test. But the margin of error was large enough that many more may have made progress. Either way, the general skills that colleges teach, like discipline and persistence, may be more important than academics anyway.
That we are suggesting that the major benefit of college is teaching discipline and persistence is a serious problem. Obviously these are skills that can be taught by any number of institutions (and once upon a time, they were). Families, elementary schools, high schools, apprenticeships, churches, the military, to name a few.
Maybe Leonhardt has decided that college has become the best way to teach these skills or the most cost-effective way to do so. But I’m not convinced.