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Opening Arguments

The $1 million lie

Another piece of cherished conventional wisdom shot down:

Go ahead — just try to find an instance in the last few years in which someone trying to make the case that going to college matters hasn't trotted out the statistic that the average college graduate earns a $1 million more over the course of a lifetime than a high school graduate does. You can find it in the rhetoric of presidential candidates bemoaning the unequal college going rates of Americans of different races and economic classes (per this speech by Hillary Clinton), foundations explaining their support for higher education, companies pitching investment and, not least, colleges and universities seeking to justify tuition increases.

It is the last in that list that particularly rankles Charles Miller. You remember Miller — he headed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, and while he has been far less visible in the year and a half since the commission issued its report in September 2006, he is no less concerned about the state of higher education now than he was during the commission's deliberations.

[. . .]

Miller's letter proceeds to point out all the ways in which the usual ways of assessing the value of a college degree are flawed: the calculations typically report the lifetime earnings in the “present value” of the dollar totals, rather than adjusting for inflation over time; include those with advanced degrees rather than those who have only a baccalaureate diploma; and assume that students finish college in four years in calculating a student's costs of and benefits from going to college, when relatively few on average do.

Substituting some of his own assumptions for those used by the board — including six years of tuition costs (and hence two fewer years of work), private college tuition instead of in-state public tuition, etc. — Miller calculates his own college premium. “[P]roperly using the present value of the lifetime earnings, adjusted for the cost of going to college and the difference in the number of working years, and excluding those graduates with advanced degrees, calculated at the three percent discount rate used in the report,” he wrote, “produces a lifetime earnings differential of only $279,893 for a bachelor's degree versus a high school degree!”

That's not to suggest that going to college doesn't pay or that the people who have been planning to go should rethink it. But they should also have a realistic view of what they're getting.

Posted in: Current Affairs