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The College Dropout Rate Is 45%—Should Everyone Still Go?

Research shows that college grads have smaller vocabularies than they used to.

Source: Flickr/Skcjohn

There are reports that colleges are implementing “hiring freezes,” meaning they are not hiring new faculty. Other outlets are reporting uncertain enrollment numbers for the next academic year. Tough times for higher ed.

Still, maybe there will be some benefit for some people. Dropout rates for higher education are shockingly high:

Community college: 61% (source)

Bachelor's degree: 45% (source)

Master's degree: 39% (source)

PhD: 50% (source)

The predominant advice to everyone is that they should go to college. In my own case, I was a very poor student in high school (both in terms of grades and in terms of economic status). Yet my high school counselor and multiple teachers urged me to attend community college. In California, where I grew up, the dropout rate for community college students is 70%.

How would students and their parents change their strategies if they learned that only 55% of those studying for a bachelor’s degree actually graduated? Or that only 30% of community college students manage to obtain a degree or transfer to a four-year college?

In his book Real Education, the social scientist Charles Murray gives one of my favorite examples of how a young person can think about career options.

A kid has just graduated from high school. He’s trying to decide whether to become an electrician or attend college, get a business degree, and become a white-collar manager. He knows his strengths and weaknesses after taking a rigorous skills test. Perhaps he takes something like the ASVAB, a test the military administers to identify the talents of potential recruits. I took this test before joining the Air Force.

Anyway, suppose this kid learns he is slightly above average in his linguistic abilities. He’s exactly average in intrapersonal and interpersonal skills (ability to understand himself and others). He is at the 95th percentile in both small motor skills (ability to exert subtle and precise control over one’s bodily movements) and spatial skills (ability to mentally rotate objects).

So he looks up the average income of electricians and managers. He sees that the income for electricians is about $46K and the income of managers is about $88K. Should he go to college?

The kid should ignore these averages. If he wants to become a manager, he will be competing for such positions against people who are much higher than him in linguistic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills. Plainly, his competitors would have better social skills than him and would outcompete him.

But his fine motor skills and spatial ability are superior to most people, even most electricians.

The young man reflects on this, and sees that the 10th percentile of manager incomes is $38K. The 90th percentile of electricians is $71K. Thus, even if he obtains a bachelor’s degree (a coin toss, perhaps), he’d likely go on to make less than as an electrician.

This is a good example because it can be used to approach other questions. Looking at averages can help. But knowing your unique set of skills and unusual circumstances allow you to adjust your expectations upward or downward.

Furthermore, college degrees themselves have become less reliable indicators of ability. For example, this study led by psychologist Jean Twenge at San Diego State University found that “The average college graduate now has considerably lower verbal ability than the average college graduate 40 years ago. For employers, this means that a college degree does not have the same meaning as it once did for verbal ability.”

In other words, on average, college graduates seem to be less verbally adept today compared to decades past—smaller vocabularies, poorer writing ability, and less ability to retain written information.

In 1974, about 13% of Americans were college graduates. Today, it’s around 32%.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that the vocabulary skills of Americans overall have remained unchanged.

Far more Americans have college degrees. But overall, Americans' verbal skills are the same. This suggests we are seeking increasingly more expensive credentials for skills that haven't been improved by a college education.

Money isn’t everything. Some might consider it worth attending college just to learn. But ordinary people do not have the luxury of spending thousands, or taking out massive loans, without considering the future financial payoff.

Even among those who are fortunate enough to be college graduates, there is widespread underemployment. An article from Forbes reports: "Roughly one in three college graduates (34%) are underemployed, meaning they work in jobs that do not require a college degree. This figure has remained remarkably stable over the past quarter-century, with no cyclical fluctuations or identifiable long-term trends."

Many Americans see social class as being about more than just money, though. Status is defined not just by the size of one's bank account, but also by credentials. The educated class may intuitively rank a white-collar manager who earns $38K above an electrician who earns $71K. Indeed, social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Paul Fussell have argued that education is at least as important as money when defining social class.

The luxury belief class seems to view college as a prerequisite for respectability.