Category Archives: Income distribution

College is really, really worth your money

A discussion flared up on Facebook based around this article by Michael Ellsberg in the New York Times whose premise is that college isn’t worth the money, and that we’d be better off encouraging entrepreneurship.

I happen to have been looking recently at the data on this. Let me give you a spoiler: it’s not even close. It’s worth the debt load. Here are the numbers:

  • Median income for males with bachelor’s degrees, 2010: $55,038 (does not count those with more than a bachelor’s degree, like doctors or lawyers)

  • Median for males with associates degrees: $40,918

  • Median for males with some college, no degree: $36,082

  • Median for males who graduated from high school or got a GED: $30,232

(I could obviously include numbers for women in here, too. I’m leaving them out only for brevity’s sake.)

The mean incomes are similar, but even more striking:

  • College degree, 2010, male: $70,567
  • High-school degree or equivalent, 2010, male: $36,755

To dramatize this a bit, imagine I grabbed two men at random and asked them their incomes. The probability that the randomly selected college-educated male is earning more than the randomly selected high-school-educated male is about 74%. [1]. I imagine that if I ran a similar simulation — whereby I simulate our two graduates after each has worked for 40 years, and add up their accumulated earnings — that the results would be even more stark.

Fortunately, the Census Bureau has already done that work for me. On a quick scan, I can’t find “work-life earnings” for all males, so I’ll just compare white males. Over the course of his working life, a college-educated white male (specifically one with a bachelor’s degree, not a master’s degree, a professional degree, or a Ph.D.) will have earned about $2.3 million. His high-school-educated white-male partner will have earned $1.2 million.

I repeat: it’s not even close. It’s so not even close that I consider it irresponsible in the extreme for Ellsberg to cherry-pick some success stories (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) and imply that students should strive to be like them, rather than encouraging them to take a rather more sure route to success. Had Ellsberg encouraged students, instead, to skip college and aim to be professional sports players, I hope we’d all be deeply offended. The piece he actually did write is no less offensive.

P.S. (25 October 2011): as various commenters have pointed out, this only shows correlation; it doesn’t show causation. It could well be that the people who have the drive to get a college degree are the same as those who have the drive to earn a lot of income — and that they’d earn a high income even without the college degree. It would be interesting to compare the lifetime earnings of those who got into college but chose not to go with those who got into college and went. I’ll see if I can find any interesting data in this direction later.

[1] — This is just an estimate. It’s based on a simplifying assumption, namely that the probability distribution of incomes is approximately lognormal (i.e., that the logarithm of income follows a Gaussian [bell-shaped] distribution). That assumption, combined with the estimated means and medians from the links above, gives the 74% number.

Thanks to Cosma Shalizi for pointing me to a simple approximation to the true income distribution, and noting how I could go from the estimated means and medians to an estimated probability.