EconLog reader Meretta Marks sent me the following request:

you consider the following topic for your EconLog blog:

“What every high school junior should know before thinking of going to

the beginning of the school year in high school.  Many members of the junior
class are starting to think about planning for college, i.e. do they want to go
and why, how they should start the process, what questions should they think to
be asking, etc.

Here’s what I’d say…

Dear Juniors,

You’ve spent the last eleven years of your life in school.  When you started, you were a child, and treated like a child.  Now you’re almost an adult, and you’re finally facing some adult choices.  One of the biggest: Should you stop school after you graduate from high school, or continue on to college?

Going to college definitely sounds better.  Almost every authority figure in your life – educators and family alike – recommend it to each and every student.  But as you may have noticed, authority figures are often untrustworthy.  Indeed, they usually bend the truth whenever honesty makes them look bad.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to college, but it is a reason to second-guess the party line, to seek out ugly facts parents and educators would rather ignore. 

Fortunately, you need not seek far.  Unlike most educators, I put candor above social acceptability.  Skim my writings if you don’t believe me.  In all candor, then, here’s what I have to say about going to college. 

1. College is a good deal for good students, a mediocre deal for mediocre students, and a poor deal for poor students. 

2. Once in a long while, a poor student morphs into good student.  But
expecting any particular poor student – yourself included – to morph
into a good student is wishful thinking. 

3. How do you know if you’re a good, mediocre, or poor student?  Look at
your past academic performance – your grades and standardized test
scores.  If you’re in the top 30%, you’re good.  If you’re in the next 20%, you’re mediocre.  If you’re in the bottom half, you’re poor.
This 30/20/50 breakdown is relative to all American high school students.  If
your high school is academically strong, the breakdown is probably more
like 45/30/25.  If your high school is academically weak, it’s probably
more like 10/20/70.  If this baffles you, I’m afraid
you’re probably not a good student.

5. The main reason why college is a good deal for good students, a mediocre deal for mediocre students, and a poor deal for poor students: good students usually finish college, mediocre students usually don’t, and poor students almost never do.  And most of the payoff for college comes from finishing.

6. The secondary reason why college pays better for better students: hard majors pay better than easy majors, and better students gravitate toward harder majors.

7. One bad argument against college: “What professors teach isn’t
relevant in the real world.”  In the labor market, degrees in the most
irrelevant subjects still open doors and raise pay.  Many jobs simply
require a college degree in… whatever.  The difficulty of your major matters a lot more to employers than its relevance.

8. Completion rates at two-year colleges are well below those at four-year colleges – even for students who look the same on paper.  If you can’t handle a four-year college, you probably can’t handle a two-year college either.  Two-year college is not a happy medium between four-year college and no college.

9. When you decide whether to go to college, you should consider the college experience as well as the career benefits.  But the college experience is greatly overrated.  A good rule of thumb: If your studies bore you in high school, they’ll probably bore you in college too.

10.  Don’t go to college because you have no idea what career to pursue.  Most recent college graduates feel the same bewilderment.  In both cases, you need to dive into the labor market and try your luck. 

High school juniors, I don’t want to crush your dreams.  But I’d rather crush your dreams than see you waste years of your lives and many thousands of dollars.  When teachers and parents reassure you that “Every student is a good student,” that is a flowery lie. 

Suppose your 150-pound friend dreams of being a professional football player.  Would a true friend urge him on?  No, he’d warn his mid-weight friend that he is astronomically unlikely to succeed in football, and needs to consider more realistic careers.  I’m trying to play the same role for mediocre and poor students who expect to succeed in college.

Please don’t get mad at me.  I am only a messenger.  If you’re going to get mad at anyone, get mad at all the authority figures who give you counter-productive advice to spare your feelings – and their own.

In friendship,

Bryan Caplan
Professor of Economics
George Mason University