5 Seriously Stunning Facts About Higher Education in America

Research disturbs commonly held assumptions about college.

Posted Mar 17, 2019

Matt Madd/Flickr
Source: Matt Madd/Flickr

Recently, some rich people and well-known celebrities got caught cheating to get their kids into elite universities. They bribed sports coaches, cheated the SAT, and fabricated phony credentials.

Beyond the scams of the rich and famous, though, there are other surprising facts about college in America. Facts closer to our everyday experiences. Here are five.

1. 4 out of 10 college students fail to complete their degrees. According to research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 58 percent of students manage to complete their degree programs within 6 years. Bill Gates has called this figure “tragic." He has written, “Based on the latest college completion trends, only about half of all those students will leave college with a diploma. The rest—most of them low-income, first-generation, and minority students—will not finish a degree. They’ll drop out." Sadly, community college figures are even more dismal. A recent study in California found that 70 percent of community college students fail out.

2. Attending an elite university doesn’t boost income. What matters is the ability to get in. Economists Stacy Dale and Alan B. Krueger looked at two groups, totaling about 19,000 students. One group gained admission into elite universities, attended, and graduated. Another group also gained admission to elite universities. But this group, rather than attending the elite schools, chose to attend less selective schools instead. More than 20 years after they graduated, Dale and Krueger measured their incomes. They found no difference. A student who got into Princeton but attended Penn State made as much as a student who got into, and attended, Princeton.

3. Graduating from a non-selective college doesn't boost income. In a book about social class in America, researchers looked at how differently ranked colleges affected earnings. They found that students who attended the country’s most elite institutions earned about 84 percent more on average compared to those who had not graduated from college. Graduates of “somewhat selective” private colleges and “leading state universities” earned about 52 percent more than non-graduates. However, they found “no income advantage” for those who graduated from a “non-selective” college compared to those who did not attend college.

4. A person with average academic ability has a higher than 50 percent chance of dropping out of college. For the general population, the average IQ score is 100. Research has found that, among white, American college students, those with a 105 IQ score have a 50-percent chance of dropping out of college. They also report that the average IQ of a college graduate is about 114. But they also show that having a high IQ is no guarantee of graduating. Those who score 130 (very rare; about 2-percent of the population) still have a 10-percent dropout rate.

5. SAT coaching and test prep aren't important. Many people have heard that private SAT prep courses and private tutoring produce substantial gains. Test prep companies tout that their users receive boosts of 100 points or more after only a few weeks of study. Research doesn’t support this. A meta-analysis from researchers at Harvard found that, on average, SAT coaching produces a 10-point gain. They conclude that this gain is “too small to be practically important.” More recent research from Stanford supports this. They found that students receive an 11-15-point gain from SAT coaching, which roughly corresponds to getting one or two additional questions correct. Perhaps even more surprising, a study from 2015 found that private tutoring has no effect on SAT gains. As they put it, "our hypothesis that more elite forms of test prep (private tutor) would predict higher SAT scores was not confirmed. The only form of that prep actually associated with higher SAT scores was participation in a private test prep course, which translated into an 11-point gain on the SAT when compared to students with no preparation." 

The Purpose of College

The economist Bryan Caplan has written a provocative book titled The Case Against Education. According to Caplan, the value of college isn’t in what you learn. It's in getting the degree. “Teachers have a foolproof way to make their students cheer: cancel class . . . such jubilation is bizarre. Since you go to school to acquire skills, a teacher who cancels class rips you off.” Unless the purpose of attending college isn’t to obtain skills. Maybe the purpose is actually just to obtain the degree. 

Suppose you had a choice: Attend college for 4 years, gain the skills, but have no degree at the end. Or get a degree right now, fully accredited, but not attend a single class. Caplan would not be surprised if you selected the second option. This suggests that education is less valuable than a degree. At least for earnings.

In sum, there are many odd facts about college that upset our commonly held assumptions. Before you pursue a new educational goal, it is worth looking into these research findings.

Facebook image: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock

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