Does College Pay Off for Cashiers? Yes & No
By Bryan Caplan
Two years ago, David Leonhardt argued that B.A.s pay, even for careers that don’t require them. The title: “Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off.” Is this true?
I’ve spent the last two weeks tracking down the data. Leonhardt relied on Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose’s The Undereducated American plus some of their unpublished data. When I tracked down the unpublished data, Steve Rose generously gave me updated numbers unavailable to Leonhardt. Those are the data I rely on below.
So does college pay off for cashiers? The answer turns out to be Yes and No. Before you can answer the question, you must refine it.
If your refined question is, “Do college-grad cashiers make more money than high-school grad cashiers?,” the answer is Yes. In Carnevale and Rose’s updated numbers, the median wage for B.A. cashiers is $18,200, versus $14,000 for high-school-only cashiers. That’s a college premium of 30%. Not bad.
However, if your refined question is, “Do college-grad cashiers make more money than high school grads?” the answer is No. In Carnevale and Rose’s updated numbers, the median wage for all high school grads is $25,316. The cashier with a bachelor’s degree therefore makes 28% less than the typical high school graduate. Four years of college for that?!
Which comparison is more relevant? It depends.
In a world where workers have an unchangeable occupation, the first comparison is what matters. Any cashier who wants to rise in the cashiering profession can go college to ring up sales for posher customers.
Otherwise, though, it’s the second comparison that matters. Any high school graduate with the right stuff to get a B.A. should, at minimum, expect to earn as much as his high-school-only classmates if he skips college.
On the first story, a college grad cashier tells himself, “My wage may seem low by B.A. standards, but thanks to my years of study I have become an unusually well-paid cashier. So it all worked out.” On the second story, though, a college grad cashier tells himself, “My wage may seem high by cashier standards, but despite my years of study I earn less than the typical high school grad.”
I’m a notorious Pollyanna. But even I couldn’t say the first story with a straight face. Can you?
P.S. Note: Correcting for ability bias, the college-grad cashier’s situation is even less enviable. If you have the right stuff to get a B.A., you ought at least somewhat outearn the typical person who skips college.