A person who compares the annual earnings of college and high school graduates would no doubt conclude that higher education is a good investment—the present value of the college earnings premium (the better part of $1 million) seemingly far outdistances college costs, yielding a high rate of return. But for many, attending college is unequivocally not the right decision on purely economic grounds.
First of all, college graduates on average are smarter and have better work habits than high school graduates. Those who graduated from college were better students in high school, for example. Thus, at least a portion of the earnings premium associated with college has nothing to do with college per se, but rather with other traits.
Second, a goodly proportion (more than 40 percent) of those attending four-year colleges full-time fail to graduate, even within six years. At some colleges, the dropout rate is strikingly higher. While college students sometimes still gain marketable skills from partial attendance, others end up taking jobs that are often given to high school graduates, making little more money but having college debts and some lost earnings accrued while unsuccessfully pursing a degree.
Third, not everyone is average. A non-swimmer trying to cross a stream that on average is three feet deep might drown because part of the stream is seven feet in depth. The same kind of thing sometimes happens to college graduates too entranced by statistics on averages. Earnings vary considerably between the graduates of different schools, and within schools, earnings differ a great deal between majors. Accounting, computer science, and engineering majors, for example, almost always make more than those majoring in education, social work, or ethnic studies.