This is an excerpt from a Facebook discussion of when higher education is not worth it. Some of this discussion is excerpted from my prior posts at this blog without citation, and the discussion is lightly edited and supplemented with links and bracketed additional support.
Most often when you don't have the high school grades, college admission test scores, and the math and English proficiency from high school, sufficiently strong to give you a very high chance of graduating (or full benefits from the experience even if you do scrape out a degree).
Roughly speaking when you look at the data, college isn't worth it for students who are below the 65th percentile on ACT or SAT composite scores (about 22 for the ACT and 1120 on the SAT), who are not in the top 35% of his high school class (in a high school that is representative of the general population) or have below a B+ high school GPA in schools that are not representative of the general population, or who need remedial math or English.
[[F]ewer than 38 percent of high school students who plan to get a college degree actually do so within 10 years of graduating. Of those with poor high school grades, less than 14 percent achieve their college plans. . . . 92 percent of students with low grades planning to earn an A.A. failed to do so—even higher than the 86 percent of those who abandoned their plans to earn a BA. . . . 45 per cent of dropout in the first two years of college can be attributed to poor academic performance in college classes. . . . One of the better sets of data with marginal graduation probabilities involves a comparison of likelihood of graduating from Northern Iowa Area Community College between students with some college level work exposures in high school and those without this exposure. It compared the performance of students at the lowest quartile (with an average high school GPA of 2.29, the middle quartile with an average high school GPA of 2.74 and the highest quartile with an average high school GPA of 3.21). For those without exposure to college level work, graduation rates were as follows, while those exposed (about a fifth of the sample) had the rates in parenthesis: Lowest Quartile: Male 4.18% (6.57%); Female 17.17% (25.04%); Middle Quartile: Male 19.04% (27.49%); Female 44.51% (56.38%); Highest Quartile: Male 41.25% (53.08%); Female 68.58% (77.86%). . . [S]tudents placed into remediation had lower ACT scores and high school GPAs. For example, students placed in math remediation scored a mean of 17.4 on the math section of the ACT while students who did not take the classes scored 23.3 (a similar gap, 15.8 versus 22.8, is found for English remediation). A simple comparison of the outcomes of students placed into remediation and those who are not suggests that remedial students had worse educational outcomes. After five years, a larger proportion of them dropped out of college without a degree (65.2 for those in math remediation versus 30.8 percent) and fewer of them completed a baccalaureate degree (18.1 for those in math remediation versus 53.3 percent). About sixteen percent of each group received a two year degree rather than the planned four year degree. . . . At least 3%-5% of students will fail to graduate in six years no matter how well academically prepared and screened they are, for reasons that are generally completely unrelated to any lack of academic ability or study skills or interpersonal skills, such as a serious illness or injury, death, family financial woes, elder care demands, deciding to have children, or pursuing a promising non-academic opportunity (e.g. founding a company with some partners). But, the remainder of the non-graduation rate seems to be strongly correlated with academic ability.]
Also, college/university might not be worth it if you have a viable career path in your chosen field (e.g. military service, Olympic sports, baseball, music, art, computer programming, non-financial marketing/sales, running a small business, or a skilled trade) where a college degree is not formally required.
Further education and training after high school do make sense for everyone. But, a two or four year academic degree isn't what benefits everyone, or even most high school graduates.
Those are solid guidelines. If there were a way to get that into the testing system so kids know. You can imagine those families/students of people who do not reach that promise themselves..."I'm going to work harder in college mom and dad" but when the freedoms of being out in the semi-real world of college and in many cases away from home it doesn't add up. My son's first college room mate lasted 7 weeks before he had to go home. The Constant Party and Drinking were too much.
But again, I appreciate the data. I wonder if they could make a Prep School, held at Community College that students would have an extra year of getting there studies on board and then enter a 2-4 year program would work. Enabling them to sink or swim better.
My next comments:
My intuition is that kids who aren't at that point academically when they are seniors in high school wouldn't benefit much from more classroom instruction, which wasn't very fruitful for the last twelve years, right away.
Like J.D. Vance (odious politics of late notwithstanding), something like two to four years of military service (or some other structured with a very non-academic classroom format experience, for example, learning a trade or working construction or the Peace Corps or semi-pro art or music, or ski instruction/river guide type work) first would probably be more helpful. Some people just need more time to mature too.
When I was in junior high and high school (I grew up in a college town as a child of a professor and a college administrator) and again in college itself, the old timers on the faculty would talk about how much more thoughtful and focused the GI Bill students were than traditional seventeen or eighteen year old college freshmen.
[GI Bill students had served in the military in the post-World War II era before going to college and their veteran's benefits paid for it. They were older and had more life experience for that reason. They were also often even older than the twenty to twenty-two year old veterans who enlisted straight out of high school, because many GI Bill students were drafted, or enlisted voluntarily, when they were already a few years out of high school. Most GI Bill veterans were men and men, in particular, often mature later than women, which is one factor in the higher education gap between men and women.]
Even lots of academically high achieving kids were are academically ready can burn out after too many years of non-stop classroom academic education (something that is really common in Japan and Korea and Europe where high school is more intense, that is mediated in places like Korea and Israel and Switzerland with mandatory military service).
Sliding one to four one semester long college class length remedial math or English classes in during that time period, stretched out over two to four years with only one class at a time at a slower pace than in regular school instruction, while doing something else primarily, might work though. Frustration with remedial classes in community college is one important reason that community colleges have the highest dropout rates of all, even after a single year.
Math is the #1 remedial subject that holds kids back from benefitting from college and can be fruitful to remedy because the body of knowledge that kids with remedial needs who are otherwise ready for college need is quite small and can all fit in one or two textbooks that you can learn step by step at a modest pace.
[Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads. It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. . . . At American community colleges, 60 percent of those enrolled are required to take at least one math course. Most — nearly 80 percent — never complete that requirement. In Colorado, of those starting two year college: 52.7% needed remedial help in math, reading or writing. 40% needed remedial help in math. 17% needed remedial help in math, reading and writing. 12.7% need remedial help only in reading or writing. Of those starting four year college: 19% needed help in math, reading, or writing. 16% needed help in math. 3% needed help in reading or writing and very few need help in all three areas. Students who need remedial work in mathematics are much, much less likely to graduate than those who do not, in part, because of the remediation requirement which slows down the process of getting into real college work and is simply insurmountable for some students, and in part, because it is a litmus test for poor preparation for college and low academic ability in general. But, it certainly isn't entirely about IQ. For example, in the early 2000s, among students identified as "gifted and talented" (i.e. in the 98th percentile of better on standardized tests) by the Denver Public Schools, some high schools sent almost all to college without needing remediation, while others had less than 19% of its gifted and talented students achieve this feat.]
If you are in some sort of environment like electrical work or carpentry or operating an artillery battery that makes math more relevant to you, the motivation needed to cross the remedial math hurdle can surge. This new positive attitude towards math was common place in kids that transferred from traditional format schools to a regional vocational high school in the district I attended growing up, especially for boys from rural farm areas who were being taught by teachers who lived in the college town that shared the district creating a cultural clash and lack of buy-in.
Remediating English is much harder but not impossible if you start as young as possible. It involves several distinct issues that have to be addressed. Sometimes the issue is English as a second language instruction. Sometimes the issue learning an academic standard dialect of English when you grew up speaking a less prestigious dialect of English like AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) or Appalachian dialects of English. Sometimes the issue is just weak vocabulary and grammar and writing style, rather than learning a new language or a new dialect of English.
Getting away from classroom instruction and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and having a more focused pre-professionally oriented program in the wings tentatively afterwards rather than a vague too free for people not mature enough to benefit from the freedom general four year degree program afterwards, can also re-motivate people.
But there will always be lots of people, probably 25%-50% of high school graduates, more men, fewer women, for whom any further academic instruction ever is simply fruitless for the student and a recipe for frustration and self-confidence destroying failure.
We should recognize that and not let the best be the enemy of the good by trying to not rule out being a lawyer, doctor, or President of the U.S. for kids, when it has long before been clear that those goals, or even a college degree, is an unreasonable and even absurd expectation for a particular student. We need to have life scripts in our economy and society that work for them too.
Another fun fact:
I mention the ACT composite above, but ACT English + ACT Math are actually more predictive of college success and retention than the ACT Composite or the other two parts of the ACT that are more content based. In relative terms, here is how predictive each subsection of the ACT is:
Math (significant at p=0.01 level) 26
English (significant at p=0.01 level) 16
Reading (significant at p=0.05 level) 3
Science (not statistically significant) -1.
The May 2013 study tested for differences in predictive power among the four sub-scores of the ACT using Ohio Board of Regents data on all students that matriculated to a four-year public college in Ohio in 1999.
Again, backing up your intuition with Solid Numbers. I appreciate your insight into this. Its Obviously something you have researched a lot and have thought a lot about.
This discussion doesn't cover all of the relevant issues. There is also a whole body of data on several other key factors involved in determining if higher education is worth it.
(1) Particular majors and educational programs have greater or lesser returns.
STEM programs and other quantitatively oriented fields, like economics and finance, tend to have higher economic returns for students. But these programs also require more demanding minimum academic preparation thresholds to succeed; "in most majors (e.g., History, English, Biology, social sciences, ...) students with modest SAT scores can still obtain high GPAs, presumably through hard work. However, we found almost no cases of SAT-M scorers below about 90th percentile who obtained high upper division GPAs in physics or pure mathematics[.]" So, despite high economic returns make these programs a poor choice for academically marginal students.
Other programs vary in the returns that they provide.
Culinary programs have very poor economic returns despite being pre-professional.
Sometimes it is hard to separate out factors like the fact that students in many P-12 education majors (especially the less academic ones) tending to be less academically able from the poor economic returns to these majors generally due to lower pay levels in P-12 education.
Graduate and professional school programs also have greatly varying returns. Economic returns in graduate J.D. and medical programs are particularly strong. Many MBA programs provide poor returns, and more generally, many kinds of master's degree programs don't produce great economic returns relative to PhD and professional degree programs. Other kinds of graduate programs vary considerably in the returns that they provide.
Medical school has such rigorous admissions due to an unreasonable shortage of medical school admissions slots (about 50% lower relative to the U.S. population than two generations ago), that almost every admitted graduates, becomes a doctor, and is successful in doing so from an academic ability perspective.
Law schools, however, admit many people who have dim chances of both graduating from law school and then passing a bar exam. If you aren't academically in the top half of college graduates, you are unlikely to graduate and then pass the bar exam. And, even then you are a marginal law student. Students who more reliably become lawyers and who thrive in law tend to be academically in the higher end of the top half of college graduates. This said, there are large economic returns to passing the bar exam even if your academic ability to do so is marginal, if your "W" factors, cultural capital, marketing ability, and business aptitude are strong. Academically marginal lawyers in the right kind of practice with the right other factors can do very well compared to their prospects in another other career.
(2) Particular institutions and kinds of institutions have greater or lesser returns. "For profit" educational institutions aren't worth it with only a handful of exceptions like flight schools. Only 26 percent of students who enrolled in private, for-profit institutions in 2013 managed to graduate within six years. Other schools’ six-year graduation rates weren’t great, either: 62 percent for public institutions and 68 percent for private nonprofits.
In one study, student characteristics in that study explained 25% of the variance in dropout rates, while institution type explained just under 10% of the variance.
Some colleges are particularly effective at providing good returns for first generation college students and lower income students, such as the City University of New York system and the California State University system.
(3) Factors other than IQ, which test scores and to a lesser extent high school GPA and curriculum rigor discussed below measure, matter as well in academic success. Many of these factors are collectively called the "W" factor by one researcher for "work ethic" that are better reflected in GPAs than test scores and reflect conscientiousness, lack of ADHD, grit, and so on.
But there are also other non-W factors that matter, such as cultural capital or a lack thereof that puts many first generation college students at a disadvantage. Closing related is the observation that students are more likely to benefit from higher education, if they have fewer "ACEs" (adverse childhood experiences) which can cause students to develop coping strategies that aren't very functional in a college or university environment.
Knowing how to overcome a learning disability or other disability if you have one is another factor.
Someone with strong W factors, lots of cultural capital, and a lack of disabilities or good practices for managing disabilities may benefit from higher education, even if their academic ability reflected in their test scores, grades, and the rigor of their coursework is marginal. This is, in part, because a college degree provides a lot of signaling benefits in the economic marketplace even when the experience itself doesn't intrinsically add much value.
These additional factors can only make up for so much of a short falling in academic ability, however. Certainly, it isn't enough to make up for being in the bottom quarter of academic ability for typical women, or the bottom third of academic ability for typical men.
(4) Post-secondary education provides economic returns mostly in urban areas with healthy economies while providing much weaker economic returns in rural areas and places with stagnant economies.
(5) Marginal students who are admitted to a college and earn a degree have much better economic prospects than marginal students who can't quite manage to do that, despite similar levels of academic ability, due to signaling effects in the economic marketplace associated with having a college degree, even if they don't actually learn much in college and aren't very well socialized into the socio-economic class of college graduates.
To some extent this effect is one of the symptoms of the degree inflation that our economy has experienced where many jobs expect college degrees that don't actually provide knowledge necessary to do the job and really just sort for IQ, W factors, and social class socialization.
(6) Less academically prepared students also learn less in college.
[A study] of more than 2,300 undergraduates . . . [from a representative sample of 24 colleges and universities described in] the book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses." . . . found an average-scoring student in fall 2005 scored 7 percentage points higher in the spring of 2007 on the [College Learning] assessment [which measures critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing]. In other words, those who entered college in the 50th percentile would rise to the equivalent of the 57th after their sophomore years. . . . After four years, 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement, compared with 45 percent after two [years]. Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains. . . . Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth, and students who spent more time in the Greek system had decreased rates of learning . . . [A]ctivities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not affect learning. Students from families with different levels of parental education enter college with different learning levels but learn at about the same rates while attending college. . . . Black students improve their assessment scores at lower levels than whites.
Factors That Matter For Life Success But Less So For Academic Success
There are also other factors that are demonstrated to help life economic success, like extraversion, and connections with affluent or upper class individuals, that are only modestly relevant to academic success.
Lots Of People Who Would Benefit Still Don't Get Higher Education Because They Can't Afford It Or Think They Can't Afford It
Also lots of people for whom higher education is worth it in the U.S., don't get that education due to low family incomes and a lack of appreciation of how lower income families can get higher educations with high sticker prices at much lower costs and with little to modest debt if the financial aid game is played right.