Monday, August 5, 2013

Is higher education worth it?

Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, argues in an interview on the CNN Money blog that the return on investment in a four year degree is "unequivocally" positive.  I've spectated and participated in the revolution in online education over the last five years; building products at Rosetta Stone, taking several online courses through Coursera and Udacity, exploring everything from Khan Academy to Quizlet to Knewton, and actively following the transformations that we're in the midst of.  So when I read Mr. Crow's interview I can't help but see it as mildly mis-leading and full of conflict of interest.

I want to make one point about the interview.  For reference, this is his core thesis: "the return on investment for a college education, in terms of additional earnings, is about 12% per year over your lifetime."  For the sake of argument lets assume this statement is factually true.  The problem that I have is that it is that it is only true for the average (median? I bet that number is very different if it's not already median).  It's not hard to name crazy outliers for whom the statement wouldn't have been true in the past (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg to name a few), but without a deeper breakdown it's hard to know whether there is much relevance in the statement for many other typical individuals.  For example does the 12% number hold across all degrees (computer science, mining engineering, philosophy, English, etc.), measures of student performance (high SAT vs. low SAT), socio-economic indicators, etc.?  Similarly it treats all "alternatives" to college equally.  Being a Thiel Fellow is lumped together with high school dropouts working minimum wage jobs.  However, when deciding on a college investment you're not making an abstract decision based on averages.  If you're a white, middle class, female, who wants to be an engineer, the answer to the question of whether college has a good ROI will be different than if you're a black, middle class, male, who wants to be a film director, and was offered a Thiel Fellowship to produce a new film.

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