The College Payoff: Economics … and Then Some

As I read the report on the economic benefits of a four-year-college degree from Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, I think of the students I’ve been working with over the last few years at an urban community college that serves one of the poorest populations in Los Angeles County.

Students like them are not often the focus of current discussions of bachelor’s- and postgraduate-degree attainment, but the Carnevale report speaks directly to their hopes and aspirations. The sociologists Jennie Brand and Yu Xie demonstrate that people who are least likely to attend college because of social class are the ones who gain the most economically from a college degree. And from what I’ve been seeing, such students, in addition to better economic outcomes, also stand to gain a great deal psychologically and socially.

Sam has experienced the worst of the foster-care system, shuffled house to house from the time he was a small child. In his mid-20s, Sam is a powerful-looking guy with a big smile, earnest and softly talkative about education, becoming a man, and leading a life that matters. Though he’s been sleeping in his car for half of the current year—we just got him housing—he’s maintained strong grades in his welding program, participates in student government, and works on campus as a reading tutor and in a summer program for middle-school kids. The work with adult readers and the middle schoolers has so captivated him that he wants to get a bachelor’s degree that will enable him to teach or counsel people in need.

Cynthia is president of the student body, and the story of how she came to run for office will tell you a lot about her. She and one of her older peers who was in student government were hanging out in an instructor’s office. Her fellow student was bragging about how tough he was on student council, and Cynthia, who is fearless and doesn’t suffer fools lightly, proceeded to take him down a peg. Her instructor was so impressed by her moxie that he began talking her up to her classmates as a candidate for president. Cynthia had never run for anything in her life, was a half-hearted student in high school, hated public speaking, and thought the whole idea was crazy. But the challenge touched something in her, and she began the campaign, learning to speak in classrooms, on the stump, in debates. She lost, ran again, won, and became a dogged advocate for student services, gaining a political and rhetorical education in the process.

William’s path to physics did not begin with science, but with his mother pleading to the heavens for food and shelter. William lived with his mother and younger brother in an abandoned house, and he vividly remembers waking up in the middle of the night to find his mother in tears, looking skyward and praying for help. He began to wonder what was out there in space and couldn’t shake his curiosity. He started doing well in his middle-school science courses, then in high school, and along the way he found the Discovery Channel and enthralling shows on planetary astronomy, robotic explorers, and cosmology. But as is often the case with low-income students, his path to college was slow and bumpy. He got a job, eventually took a class, changed jobs, took another class, tried to balance work and school, opted for the graveyard shift, started a family, took more classes, and finally got all the pieces together. Now he’s well into his math and physics courses and preparing to transfer into an astrophysics program at one of the state universities. “I kind of had to discover everything on my own,” he told me, “but now I’m not gonna let anything stop me.”

The poor statistics on community-college completion are well known; these three students are among the 30 percent who will earn a credential or degree or will transfer within four years. Without denying the clear need to do better, I think we need to pay more attention to that 30 percent, for they have much to teach us about the value of the college experience. To be sure, Sam, Cynthia, and William are exceptional students, but the kind of thing that is happening to them is not uncommon. There’s the ex-gang member, paralyzed from a shooting, who wants to work with troubled youth. There’s the fashion student—a blend of punk and Lady Gaga—who was always terrified of math and found, to her great, happy surprise, that she could help her friend through college algebra. There’s the student nurses whose gradually developing knowledge of human physiology and medicine is shaping their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world.

It makes sense to focus on the economic benefits of college, given our time, and given the policy impact of an economic argument. But, as a number of studies show, higher education has extra-economic benefits as well: from health to civic engagement to increased involvement in children’s education. And I see more. People learn new things or advance old interests. They confront longstanding inadequacies about school and their abilities. They feel their minds working. They develop relationships with a variety of people, sometimes crossing delicate boundaries of race, religion, and sexual orientation. They begin to imagine a once unimaginable future. They begin to reinvent themselves. These are personal and social benefits of the first order.

In this time of drastic cuts to colleges such as the one I visited—cuts resulting in fewer classes, reduced services, shrinking aid money—students like the three I met face threats to their progress and take longer to complete their degrees. I hope the Carnevale report reminds us of all that is at stake: the fuller development of a wide sweep of Americans seeking a better life.

Mike Rose is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and is author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education (New Press).

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