Dr. Neal Gibson and Dr. Greg Holland with the Arkansas Research Center aren’t looking for anecdotes. They’re looking for hard data. And the data shows them this: The more education Arkansas students get, the more money they will make – even if they pay all that money to go to college but never finish school.
That leads to some big questions. But first, the data.
Their recent report, "Education and Wage Outcomes for the Arkansas Workforce," looked at Arkansans whose formal education ended in 2006. Using the state’s unemployment insurance records, they studied the incomes of 69,515 people – the incomes, not the names.
Here’s what they found. Those with a high school diploma earned an average of $14,972 five years after graduating, which was $3,700 more than those who dropped out in the 12th grade. Those with a credential "less than" a bachelor’s – for example, an associate’s degree – earned $27,631. Those with a bachelor’s degree earned $38,887. Those with more education earned $52,447.
The report is most interesting where it looks at the salaries of students who had "some college." For each additional year of school, wages increased significantly even though students didn’t take home a diploma. Those who dropped out as freshmen earned $21,057 – a significant jump over the $14,972 their fellow high school graduates were making. Students who dropped out their senior years were making $31,531. If they had gotten their degree, statistically, their annual salary would have jumped more than $7,000.
Gibson and Holland agree that people can do well with only a high school diploma. But, averaged across 70,000 Arkansans, more education means more money.
So the case is closed for college, right? Well, there is an unanswered question: How much of these higher wages is due to the education itself, and how much is due to the situations of the individuals behind the numbers?
Here’s an example. Who goes to college for three years before leaving school? This is overgeneralizing, but probably a young person whose family has the ability to help pay for that. That student probably has a car, a computer, nice clothes for job interviews. Their families know people. When he drops out of college, there might be something for him to drop into.
The kid who never steps foot in college? Again, this is overgeneralizing, but he’s more likely to come from a disadvantaged situation.
So maybe the first student isn’t making more money because he took freshman literature. He’s making more money because he had a head start to begin with.
When presented this theory, Gibson said it was a valid question but, "Given the data we have, how would you test for that?"
Remember, they deal with numbers. They know what they know, and they try not to pretend they know more.
Unlike, you know, newspaper columnists.
Here’s guessing the answer is probably a combination of both. Even some college helps students broaden their horizons, increase their skills and make professional contacts. At the same time, where you start in life matters a lot.
Earlier this year, former Education Secretary William Bennett published a book he coauthored titled, "Is College Worth It?"
Arkansas has decided that it is. While it currently ranks 49th in its percentage of adult college graduates, Gov. Beebe and other policymakers have made improving that ranking a major goal. After years of trying to get students in school, the focus is now on making sure they obtain a degree of some kind. Recently the state announced a new program, Credit When It’s Due, that awards associate’s degrees to students who earned enough hours to qualify after transferring to a four-year school but never graduated with a bachelor’s degree. In addition, part of the state funding sent to colleges will be tied now to graduation rates.
Still, many college students won’t graduate. They will write big checks to universities, and they will accept scholarships paid for by other Arkansans. And they will have no degree to show for it.
According to Gibson’s and Holland’s data, they and the rest of Arkansas still will benefit. Assuming they’re right, the question isn’t "Is college worth it?"
It’s "How much is some college worth?"
Which leads to one last question. In addition to Credit When It’s Due, what can educators and policymakers do to make "some college" worth more?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.