Dropouts, Taxes and Risk: The Economic Return to College under Realistic Assumptions
34 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2013 Last revised: 27 Jan 2015
Date Written: January 26, 2015
Most published estimates of the economic return to college rest on a series of best-case assumptions that often overstate returns and, most importantly, obscure differences in return across different institutions. We simulate the economic return to college under more realistic assumptions using U.S. Census data combined with administrative data from the more selective University of California system and the less selective California State University system. Specifically, we adjust for delayed graduations, the probability of dropping out, progressive taxes on earned income, and risk aversion. We perform a bounding exercise for ability bias. These each reduce expected returns to a Bachelor’s degree. Contrary to prior “best case” estimates, and under reasonable bounds for the ability bias, we find that the return to a college degree in 2010 could be less than the interest on unsubsidized Stafford loans. Returns are particularly modest for young men at the less-selective CSU system, largely due to high dropout rates, delayed graduation, and a lower effect on labor force participation compared to women. Our analysis begins to bridge the gap between standard estimates of the economic return to college and the institutional performance metrics reported in the Obama Administration’s College Scorecard.
Keywords: Higher Education, Educational Investment, Returns to Education
JEL Classification: I2, J24
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation