«Does College Matter? Episode 1: Mary Daly Introduction: In an age where tuition is on the rise, high school students are skipping out of college to ...»
Does College Matter?
Episode 1: Mary Daly
Introduction: In an age where tuition is on the rise, high school
students are skipping out of college to start their own companies, and
technology increasingly offers alternative ways to learn, we wanted to
ask the question, does college still matter? You’re listening to the
Does College Matter? podcast, episode number one.
Jody: Hi, everyone. This is Jody Hoff, and I’ll be your host for this
new miniseries podcast called Does College Matter? I’m an educator here at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, and this podcast grew out of three essays written for our recent annual report on the value of college. Now whether you’re a student, a parent, counselor, or just someone thinking about advancing your career options, the Does College Matter? podcast will bring you insights from a diverse and interesting group of experts, entrepreneurs, and college students as they tell their personal stories about formal and informal learning to help you decide for yourself does college matter.
Mary: It’s not the end, either, when you get the college degree; it’s just the beginning, but it gave me a different beginning than I would have ever had had I not gone. It gave me a whole set of opportunities that I couldn’t even imagine before I started. So, it will be hard at times. It absolutely will, but the rewards at the end will completely be worth it, and when you walk out and you graduate, you’ll feel prouder than you’ve ever felt in your life, if you’re like me, and it will wipe away all those sleepless nights of worries and lack of confidence, and it opens a path to a future that you would never have otherwise.
Jody: I’m excited in this first episode, and, in fact, actually, I can’t think of a better way to kick off the podcast than by introducing you to Mary Daly, who’s been described as the people’s economist for her down-to-earth, no-jargon way of explaining the complexities of the U.S. economy. Now Mary is also a Senior Vice President and Associate Director in the Economic Research Department at the San Francisco Federal. Today we want to dig into some recent work of Mary’s, arguing that college does still pay. I’ll ask Mary why a four-year degree is still a great investment, how to use a new online tool to calculate your breaking point on college tuition, and Mary will share some of her personal journey as a student and a lifelong learner.
Mary, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today.
Mary: You’re welcome. Glad to do it.
1 Jody: Yeah, so, Mary, your essay “Does College Pay?” frames a really critical question facing the millions of high school students who’ll be graduating over the next few months. I’m curious about what got you interested in this topic, and why is it such an important question for you?
Mary: I’ve long been interested in income and equality. One of the factors that economists find affects income and equality is education, so this is something we’ve all known. Recently, I’d say in the last couple of years, there’s been this very deep question being asked by millions of Americans, certainly in the media, about whether college really pays, does college still pay, and I thought that there was a divide between the factual information that I’d been able to assess in my research for three decades and the kind of concerns people had about whether college still paid. So I went back and looked at the data again and asked that very question, does college pay off, and I think the answer—I know the answer from the research is unequivocally it pays off.
Jody: Okay. Unequivocally, that’s pretty strong language.
Mary: I think this strong language is not the kind of language I would normally use to be so strong, but it’s against this backdrop of maybe questioning whether college matters in this day and age when we’re just coming through a very deep and difficult recession, and I can see, personally, from the statistics that we look at, but also you can talk to people day to day; a college education is something that helps you have some insurance, if you will, some economic insurance against the worst downturn that we’ve had in a long, long time.
Jody: In the essay, you and your coauthor, Yifan Cao, talk about something called the college earnings advantage. What exactly does that mean, and why is that important?
Mary: Well, what we call the college earnings advantage is essentially this premium that you earn if you have a college degree relative to what you would earn if you had a high school degree. So that’s a simple way for us to calculate how much the college degree pays. If you accumulate that premium over every year you earn it, then you can accumulate it, gain, essentially by the end of your lifetime that give us some sense of the value or the benefit of having gone to college rather than terminating your education at high school.
2 Jody: And so that was the metric that you used, was taking earnings that would roughly be maybe on the average for a high school student—or maybe tell us a little bit about that.
Mary: You know, that’s a really good question. One can do a deeper dive or cut this by subgroups; you’d get very similar answers, but for our calculation, we made the very simple calculation of taking the average earnings of a high school graduate in the U.S. and the average earnings of a college graduate in the U.S. and calculated the difference between those averages, and that’s called the college earnings advantage.
Jody: I see.
Mary: Then we also check to see whether that was changing over time. Maybe it was true twenty years ago that there was a large advantage to having a college education, but there’s a good question there about whether that college advantage has been diminishing, and we found that it has not been diminishing—hasn’t been growing, but it’s sort of stayed constant. So whether you graduated twenty years ago or you graduate today with a college degree, you’re going to make more money than you would make if you graduated with a high school degree.
Jody: In the essay, you have some, actually, great charts that also demonstrate this exact concept.
Mary: Right. We tried to put the data into the essay because I think it’s important for everyone who’s interested in this question not just to believe me or any other person who has said they’ve done the research but to actually look at the data and see what it looks like over time. It’ll help make a better decision for each person.
Jody: Okay. So, you also discuss that over a lifetime the financial benefit of college far outpaces the cost. Maybe you can talk to us a little bit about how you came to that conclusion, and does it even hold for the most expensive colleges?
Mary: Those are great questions, and one of the things that we really set out to do was to ask, how much can you pay before it’s really not worth it, and what we found, and it was really, I think, a surprise to me, is that you can go to most colleges in the U.S. and it will be advantageous to make this bargain. It is true that if you went to colleges that cost upwards of eighty, ninety thousand dollars a term, then it gets hard to recoup that if you’re making the average salary of 3 someone who has a college degree, but it leaves open most colleges in the U.S. Most seats at colleges in the U.S. are ones that will pay a good dividend by the end of fifteen years, and what we’ve done is we’ve tried to put together not only a road map through the data we have but also a hands-on calculator that allows people to plug in their tuition and ask themselves, how long is it going to take for me to pay this off if I make the average salary of a person with a college degree?
Jody: And one of the ways that you frame that, I think that’s also really helpful, was you discuss this in kind of the terms of a breakeven year. So maybe you could walk us a little bit through about what that means.
Mary: So a breakeven year is the accumulated premium you’ve earned from making more than the high school graduate has paid for the cost that you laid out to go to college. So when we calculated this breakeven year, we found that people can break even, if you will, in about twelve years…
Jody: Oh wow.
Mary: Depending on the cost, for the average college tuition. So that means that if you graduate when you’re twenty-two, by the time you’re in your early thirties, you’ve really paid for that investment, and now you’re just going to earn a rate of return for the rest of your life that gives you a financial advantage.
Jody: In addition to the earnings advantage that you get from being a college graduate, there are some other insurance—that, I think, is the word that you mention—that comes along with having a degree, and maybe you can talk to us a little bit about—I was thinking about that in terms of the differences in unemployment rates, depending on your level of education. Does that play in here as well?
Mary: Absolutely. One of the things that, you know, if you look at the data you find is that sure, you get this earnings advantage, which we’ve already talked about, that you earn more than a high school graduate would earn. But you also are more flexible as the economy changes. So the economy’s always evolving and changing. It’s becoming more technology inclined. People have to switch careers, jobs particularly and careers even throughout their life, so that college degree gives you an order of flexibility because you’re more flexible to change with the changing economy. We’ve also found out, just coming through, as I said, the Great Recession, it gives you a little bit of insurance, insurance against big shocks that happened in the
Jody: I see.
Mary: So it just gives you a level of economic security that goes beyond just the financial gain you get year to year.
Jody: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You know, we often hear a lot of stories in the media about these amazing people who drop out of college to pursue a dream. I was wondering if you think this might send a confusing message to young people.
Mary: Well, I think these stories are inspiring, and we, certainly, sitting here on the West Coast near the heart of the technology boom in the U.S., you can find regularly stories of people who have done that. You can also find that in athletes and actors and a variety of other people who have just made successful careers for themselves.
The question I’m always asking, because I’m at heart a researcher, is, is that true of the average person, and what we find in the data is no, it’s not true of the average person. For the average person, the college degree gives you a platform to move forward. So, is it a confusing message? I don’t think it’s a confusing message as long as you have all the facts. So if a young person and his or her family is sitting around the dining room table, asking, is this right for me, and those individuals have all the facts, then I’m sure they’re reaching good decisions that work for them, but the important thing to know is that it gives you a leg up if you have a college degree, and that’s true whether you’re going to go off and be a successful entrepreneur or you’re going to be a successful business person or a successful person working in an engineering or technology field.
Jody: You know, one of the clear points that you and Yifan make is the importance of actually finishing college, of actually getting that degree. Why isn’t just some college good enough?
Mary: Well, what we found in the data is that the four-year college degree is really the degree that gives people a premium, if you will.
We don’t find that the earnings gain from just a little college, whether you go for one year, two years, or three years, that that earnings gain is not nearly as large as the gain that comes from having a four-year degree. People have thought about this and talked about it, but,
Mary: And that signal says you’ve completed this degree program, and you’re certified, if you will, as someone who went to college and finished, and that is a valuable thing in the marketplace time and time again.
Jody: To follow up on that a little bit, how does dropping out coupled with some student loans make the situation even more of a challenge for young people?
Mary: So one thing that’s really important to recognize in the essay we did is we didn’t account for student loans at all, because we were just doing the breakeven calculations, and all of our calculations are based on you’re just paying out of flow income as you go; you’re paying out of pocket. So one of the things I would note is that even if you put student loans aside for a moment and you just think of starting and then not finishing and you’re going to earn something more similar to the high school graduate, really you have to ask yourself, was that worthwhile, because you just gave up two years of earnings, and you’re only going to earn a little bit more. So, of course, when you add student-loan debt to that, that makes the calculation even more unsatisfying. It’s even more difficult. So the message is if you start, it’s really important to finish.
Jody: Well, you have a figure in your essay that also highlights that, and it was stunning to me about how much difference there was between some college and then the actual attainment of the four-year degree.
Mary: It’s striking. It’s really surprising. It was surprising to me, and it is, again, just another indication that it’s the four-year degree that matters. It’s the four-year program that matters. Now, importantly, and I think this is a point that gets underemphasized, if you will, it’s really important to know that you don’t have to start at a four-year degree program or a four-year school. Whether you start at a twoyear school and then move to a four-year university to finish, that’s completely fine, and, in fact, that’s a path that many take and very successfully, either for financial reasons or just to get themselves more familiar with being in the college environment. So going first to
Jody: Oh, that’s great to hear. I don’t think that’s a message that gets emphasized very much either.