Admissions Beat S5E6 Transcript

Season 5: Episode 6 Transcript
Is College Worth It?

Lee Coffin:
From Hanover, New Hampshire, I'm Lee Coffin, Dartmouth's dean of admissions and financial aid, and this is Admissions Beat.

So a few months ago I was listening to the New York Times Daily podcast and an episode popped up called "Is College Worth It?" And the contributing writer, Paul Tough, in his interview with Michael Barbaro on the episode said, "Why are so many high school students and their parents souring on higher education and what will it mean for the country's future?" I was walking my dog and I stopped and I thought, "Now there's a question."

And my first answer as a dean of admission is it's an article of faith that college is worth it. And that the work I've been doing for over 30 years to introduce college to the next generation of students and to help them navigate the journey from home to that place is important and worthwhile. And then I thought, as somebody who was the first person in my family to graduate from college, it's even more absolute in my mind that yes, of course, college is worth it.

But as I listened to the rest of the episode and then listened to it again and took some notes, the question nagged at me. There are public polls that are coming out that say half or fewer of parents in the United States see college as a goal for their own children. That number had been 98% a decade ago. And I have to say, as a dean of admission and as someone who spent my career in higher ed, that's a shocking statistic.

So today, as we continue the conversation with high school juniors and their parents about the discovery part of their college search in these early moments, I want to have a conversation with two experts in this space to help us think about the value of college, both literally, but also in a more macro sense. Why do we go to college? What is the point of enrolling in a four-year undergraduate institution earning a degree? And what are the benefits of that experience, the degree, but to me, something more existential even?

So when we come back, we will meet Jamie Merisotis, the president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation in Indianapolis, and Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce within the McCourt School of Public Policy.


So I'm excited to have this conversation with my two guests this week. A very different kind of conversation for Admissions Beat, but I think a really important one as we look at the admission landscape and think about where are we and why are we here. So we'll be right back.

Jamie, Tony, welcome to Admissions Beat. I'm so honored that you're taking some time from your busy schedule to have this conversation with me on Admissions Beat, as I continue to help high school students and their parents think about this thing called the college search. So welcome.

Jamie Merisotis:
Delighted to be with you. Thank you.

Lee Coffin:
You're welcome.

Anthony Carnevale:
Nice to be here. Thank you.

Lee Coffin:
Thank you. Before we start, I'm wondering if the two of you might share some insights about your work. You've both been thought leaders in this space about college and its value and is it worth it, but how did you both come to this question? And you've written about it, it's central to the work you do in day to day. Why? Jamie, how did you find your way to this question?

Jamie Merisotis:
Personal experience often dictates what path you take in your career. So like you, Lee, I'm the first in my family to go to college. I come from an immigrant family. My parents were Greek heritage and my dad was a high school dropout. My mother did graduate from high school. And I often tell people my parents didn't know what college was except for one thing, which is that their children were going. It was a very strongly held value. My mother went back to work after having my youngest brother and worked all the way till her retirement to help support me and my brothers and our pathway into and through college.

So that experience very much influences your trajectory in life because I realized that graduating from Bates College in Maine in 1986 was a transformative moment, not just for me, but for my family. I believe as a first generation graduate, my brothers and I have ended poverty in the Merisotis family forever. And so I believe strongly in this value of higher education. Even as I'm an advocate for change in the system, I believe very strongly in how important it is.

And so, I'm a product of the system. I'm someone who has understood personally the value of student financial aid, for example. Pell Grant recipient, took out student loans, got church scholarships, community scholarships, state scholarship. I was a walking advertisement for every financial aid program you could think of.

I also continue to be an analyst and advocate for these issues starting out as a research analyst working for the college board early in my career, running a bipartisan national commission and then a D.C. based think tank, and now for the last 16 years at Lumina Foundation. But all on the same pathway of trying to help more people, particularly low income, first-generation students of color, get into and through these post-secondary learning experiences.

Lee Coffin:
I really appreciate that background. Thank you, Jamie. And just because I always ask guests when we start, how did you find Bates? Where did you go to high school and what was the journey from that place to Lewiston, Maine?

Jamie Merisotis:
I grew up in a working class suburb of Hartford called Manchester, Connecticut. I was in a very good public high school, but I had very little guidance. In fact, my college admission story is interesting. So Bates is and was one of the first test optional schools in the country. I had very poor test scores, but I knew that I wanted to go to college. My parents were very motivated about that.

But I found Bates simply through a brochure in the mail. I knew nothing about it. My family knew nothing about it. In fact, when I showed up for freshman orientation, I looked around and realized I was the only person in the room who hadn't actually visited the college before I showed up because no one told me you're supposed to do that. It simply wasn't something that my family experienced, that we understood. I got into some very good schools and chose Bates primarily because I was really interested in the liberal arts experience.

Lee Coffin:
I'm smiling as I listen to your story because it's very familiar to me. It's almost a carbon copy. I ended up at Trinity instead of Bates, but very, very similar story from high school to college.

Tony Carnevale from Georgetown, how has this become your focus at the McCourt School of Public Policy?

Anthony Carnevale:
I came from a family that my father was fully disabled. I like to say I don't come from the working class, I come from the non-working class. So there wasn't much guidance there. Kept going to school. I wasn't a great student. I skipped school a lot, sometime for in high school months at a time. I wanted to go to the Merchant Marine Academy, the Maine Maritime Academy. I'm from Maine and eventually went to Colby.

The other thing I wanted to do is join the army and be a hero. And schoolteachers, that is my high school, a couple of them, just were determined not to let me do that. They went down and ripped up my application papers for the army, told the guy if he processed my papers, they'd never send them anybody else. And they got me a scholarship to Colby.

It was a place where I was quite uncomfortable. Those kids were different than me, quite different. But I knew it was my chance, so I worked very hard at it. And eventually after that, went to graduate school because the job I got out of college was a high school teacher, which is still the hardest job I've ever had.

And so my connection to education, I've always been somebody who worried about jobs, whether people had them or didn't have them, and so on and so forth. But eventually, I worked for a lot of private sector institutions and ended up with a little consulting firm at something called the American Society for Training and Development, worked with corporations.

But ultimately, the training piece led me into the education piece and have been there ever since. I mean, the bottom line in the American economy, if you've been somebody who had studied it and had responsibilities that connected to it was the phenomenal growth in the value of post-secondary education, especially after 1985.

Lee Coffin:
We all share a very similar story about college, as Tony, you called it, my chance. And Jamie, you said your parents had that expectation for you. I would say mine did too. And someone once said, "When did you know you were going to college?" And I said, "I just always did. I was a good student and college just seemed the thing I would do even though no one I knew had done it."

But I think it gets to this point that was raised in that Daily conversation about college has always been central to the idea of the American dream, that it's a way you can change the arc of your life. That was a hundred percent true for me, and sounds like for all of us. Why does the upside of that seem to now be in doubt? What's going on in your view that has disrupted this idea that college is opportunity, period? Why do people doubt it now?

Jamie Merisotis:
I would say there's a couple of big factors. The most obvious, and the one that I think has gotten the most attention is the concerns about affordability. So simply put, there's a long-term trend line, which is undeniable, which is that whatever measure you are using, tuition or total cost of attendance, just taking out the living costs, the costs associated with going to college, and by college in particular, I mean right now four-year college, has exceeded measures of ability to pay and inflation for more than four decades.

And so if you look at the data, people understand that. People understand that the price has exceeded those benchmarks, those other indicators. And so over time, the cumulative effect I think has been very high levels of debt, which has contributed to this view of the challenges from a lifelong perspective of the opportunity costs of going to college and what that means, particularly if you don't complete your degree or other credential.

But the other thing besides affordability, I think is simply the skepticism from a political perspective about the idea that formal education or training is necessary as a pathway into and through the middle class. And the reason for that is there are spectacular anecdotes of people who haven't done that, who can be pointed to with some regularity that I think defy the data.

Now, Tony can tell you that the data are very, very clear, which is that your chances of making it into and succeeding in the middle class are extremely low if you don't get a degree or other credential. It's simply that simple. They're extremely low. But I think that because we live in a world where you have access to a lot of information, I think those spectacular anecdotes of people who didn't have to do that, who took a shortcut, who took an easier path, et cetera, those can really become part of the ethos, the cultural narrative, if you will, of what college is all about.

So I would say those are two of the biggest factors from my perspective. I think Tony knows a lot more about the reality of the consequences of not going in my view, but I think those are the major factors. Tony?

Anthony Carnevale:
In my experience, which is mostly on the policy side, when I used to deal with this working for politicians, Jamie's right. I still believe cost is the root of the issue in higher education and the root of the dissatisfaction with higher ed.

A lot of people come from families or are in families where the reality is they really need to get their kids into college or just some kind of post-secondary education and training. And that with college costs rising as they have, I think it's almost 200% since 1980 on average, and wages have not risen by 200% for a very large share of Americans, and it has become part of parenting. It is a new responsibility.

And that's a burden, I mean, it's a lot to ask that you have children and then you pay for them until, nowadays, it's basically to age 32. Used to be, back in the day, in the 1970s, the average age at which a male or a female became what economists thought was financially independent, and what we used to say back in those days, we don't anymore, and ready for family formation, that age was 25 on average in the United States. It's now 32.

And the reasons are simple. You got to do a lot more schooling. That's expensive. It takes time. You've got to have work experience. A lot of this is being realized in education reform, work-based learning, internships, et cetera. And basically on your third or fourth go, you end up with employment in these times, where you've got a pathway that you can follow into your late 40s. It's become part of growing up.

Lee Coffin:
Do you think parents have surrendered the idea of college as the American dream?

Anthony Carnevale:
I hope not, because if they have for their children, they're deserting them. The bottom line is that college is now under attack, I think. There are lots of reasons to be annoyed with the American higher education system. There's not much doubt about that, but in the end, the attack on this issue is unfair.

We know two things since the '80s that are very clear. One is the value of the BA, which everybody focuses on, has doubled over the value of a high school degree and even more so for graduate degrees. The other thing we know that is even more important in my judgment is that the differences in value by field of study, that is whether you study petroleum engineering and get a BA in that, and you'll make 130 grand a year right out of school, or you become a school teacher and you don't make 130 grand.

So the variation is causing a whole new set of problems, and it's not good for the humanities and the liberal arts, although we know as economists that in work, and it's not work we've done at Georgetown, but in work done by international econometricians, one of the things that comes very clear is that the American system, and this had to have been an accident I think. But the American system, the fact that in degrees we mix general and specific education, your major matters a lot.

But if you get general and specific education, your long-term flexibility as a person in the economy is greater, and all of the work in this area says the flexibility of the economy itself is improved by that.

Jamie Merisotis:
I was going to just say, I think my answer to your question is pretty straightforward, which is I do think that the American dream is at risk. I do think that the challenge has grown. When I came to Lumina Foundation in 2008, we set a goal to try to catalyze the country towards a college attainment goal. The goal is 60% of Americans should have a degree, certificate, or other credential by 2025.

We did that in part because of data that Tony and others had produced showing what the value was, both to individuals and society of a higher proportion of the population having post-secondary degrees or other credentials. And in part because of what was happening internationally in other parts of the world, in Scandinavia, Korea, and other places.

But in 2008, this question of, is college worth it, is it part of the American dream, was a non-factor in the equation. It was overwhelmingly believed, and the debate was really about how much do you need and which kind of schools and what are the majors and those kinds of things. Today, that fundamental question about going or not going I think is really at risk. And in that sense, I think we are at a tipping point in some ways, I think with this confluence of things that we're seeing, affordability, the political challenges that I mentioned.

We should not understate the risk that exists to the system. And particularly, and this is something that I think Tony has been particularly good about, particularly at that messaging, that narrative, reaching the people who actually need the post-secondary opportunity the most, the low income students, the underserved students of color and immigrants and first generation students and others. That's the real risk here.

The real risk here is that the gap will become even wider in this timeframe if these messages endure, and people believe that the American dream is possible without a post-secondary credential without the experience of going to college or other high quality post-secondary learning. So to me, that's very much a critical question and something that higher education should take seriously and not believe that that its history is going to propel it forward. I think higher ed's going to have to demonstrate its worth and value going forward.

Lee Coffin:
You've both given me so many follow up questions. What's foremost in my mind, I guess, is this economic one to start with: that people who go to college, over their lifetime in their careers earn more and there's some argument that that's less true than it was, but still true.

But if you're a guidance counselor, you're in a high school where most students don't go to college— I mean, there's lots of schools around the country, around the world where it's just an automatic transition from I'm a senior in high school and now I'm a first year student in college, and there's really no pause. Should I do this?

But I think for a lot of people in schools where that college-going culture is not as robust, you've got a guidance counselor with a big caseload who has to intervene and disrupt this question like, oh yeah, I can skip college and be just fine. And what's the argument for a guidance counselor to make either with a parent who is looking at cost and not understanding that many colleges have the capacity to help open access through financial aid. That's a whole 'nother podcast.

But for people looking at the cost and especially the cost of private places, like where I work, what's the argument you would give that person sitting in a school that's having a conversation with a skeptical teenager or a parent who perhaps didn't go to college themselves?

Anthony Carnevale:
My bias would be, and it's probably not the most effective approach, but my bias would be just tell them what the numbers say. I mean, it's relatively straightforward. Now, the point that needs to be made quickly after that is high school counselors don't know the numbers. The United States, I think in effect, we don't have a counseling system really when it comes to career to get them thinking about it.

Jamie Merisotis:
I would say for the counselors, it's got to be some combination of the facts and being very clear about the facts and also really good storytelling. I think that storytelling is extremely important here in helping people understand. I tell people all the time, it's not about the first job you'll have, it's the last job that you'll have that really matters here. And the trajectory over the course of an adult work lifetime is the cumulative impact of the things that you've learned along the way, college being a very important part of that. It's a milestone achievement that opens a lot of doors. But it's not just one door, it's many doors over the course of your lifetime.

I'm a writer. I've written a couple of books and I've started to do ... I do a biweekly column for Forbes, and I've started to try to do some storytelling to put a human face on this because part of the problem with people like Tony and I is that the people with the policy backgrounds— I ran a D.C. based think tank— is that people get lost in the numbers. They can find a number that fits their argument all the time. So you need to match that with really good stories.

In one of my recent columns, I told the story about a very interesting guy in Indiana, graduated from Ball State University with a degree in journalism. And the industry changed, he ended up deciding that he was going to look for a job with an electrical firm. He ended up getting a job with the electrical firm.

And what's super interesting about his career path is that he is adamant about the fact that his trajectory in the world of being an electrician and being in that world has been heavily influenced by his BA in journalism from Ball State University. That in fact, it's turned out that out of the box, his boss understood that he was a better critical thinker, that he could solve problems, that he knew how to communicate with customers, that there were all of these things that he could do.

And sure enough, he not only learned the technical skills to how to be an electrician, but very quickly became a project manager, et cetera. But it's an interesting example. And so his view is people would say, "Well, so why'd you go to college?" And he says, "No, the fact that I went to college and got that degree is why I am doing what I am doing at this point in my life. It's because I got that college degree."

It's an interesting example, anecdote of someone who didn't end up with the linear path of "I studied engineering, so I'll be an engineer," or "I studied accounting, so I'll be an accountant"—he studied journalism and he ended up as an electrician. And he is adamant that it was absolutely that liberal arts experience through the journalism program at Ball State was a key to the success of his career trajectory. So the power of storytelling I think is really, really important.

Lee Coffin:
I think that's right. And as somebody who's worked in a liberal arts environment for my whole career, year by year, the conversation you just imagined gets harder as I represent 50 plus departments from computer science, economics, engineering, all the way over to philosophy and classics and art history or things that people don't really know the name, like digital humanities and linguistics.

And what I find in the admission space is families get stuck on this linear idea that what I study is what I will be and that there's a financial payoff connected to what I will be, and it's harder. I agree, Jamie, that the storytelling is really powerful and important, but I feel like parents and especially parents who did not go to college themselves worry about career and early earnings as a byproduct of what you major in. And I know to that first gen family, that's a hard argument to disrupt.

Jamie Merisotis:
It is. It is. I hear that. I also think that there are opportunities from the admissions perspective, both from the high school side and from the college admission side, to be able to show these examples of people who have been on that pathway and people who have gone to his or her high school or who has graduated from the college or university that they're being admitted to, to show them that pathway, that this is not atypical, that this is the story of people like them.

So again, I'm not trying to say that the data are unimportant. I'm saying you going to have to match that with the real life stories because this seems very abstract to a lot of those families, particularly those working class families. They are living paycheck to paycheck and they are one car breakdown away from potentially a calamitous set of circumstances in their life. And helping them understand that this really is a journey, a pathway that's going to lead to great success for their child, for their offspring is important to help them make ... It's important to make it real for them. That's the key, I think.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah, no, you're describing my family. I remember coming home from college at the end of my sophomore year and telling my dad that I had declared a major in history, and his immediate salty response was, "What the blank will you do with that? Why am I paying so much money for you to be a historian?" I said, "Well, two things. I have a significant scholarship, so we're not really paying that much for it." But I tried not to be sassy with him.

But he was stuck on this idea that his son, the first to go to college, was telling him that history was the thing that had captured my intellectual curiosity and that I wanted to study. And I did it before he passed away. I said, "I think I turned out just fine with my humanities degree." He grudgingly acknowledged that I had, but he didn't understand it.

And I share that story because I think there's a lot of students I meet from first gen backgrounds, from less resourced high schools where they're pointing themselves towards STEM, business, things that seem practical, even though their heart might be looking somewhere else, but they don't know they have permission to do that.

And Tony, you've studied this. I mean, you've looked at majors and incomes. And sadly, your research seems to correspond to the sense that some of these majors are actually more lucrative.

Anthony Carnevale:
Well, yes, they are. I mean, there's no way around that. That is, we know that STEM majors tend to be, not always, tend to be high paying with the exception of biology. And biology, there's a suspicious fact there, which is it's mostly women. And that business majors, and there are lots of them now, logistics is very powerful at the moment, and they tend to be higher paying and eventually you tend to get to be the boss with the exception of hospitality, which again is where women are concentrated.

And then there are college majors, teaching, and the serving professions where you end up being a counselor and so on. And in those, the BA really doesn't get you done. You really need the master's degree now. So there's that additional. By comparison, the returns are very low there. You don't end up poor. As someone I know says, "What you make is about what you take."

When you look at what we call spaghetti charts, which is we take majors and then show which industries and occupations people go into, they're all over the place. People don't work in field for very long. Sometimes it's because they become managerial. If you're a good engineer and somebody who's very good with technology, what you really want to do is go to a company, go to Hewlett-Packard, and then become a salesperson. That's where the money is. It's what my brother-in-law did.

There is a career dimension to this that doesn't match the majors with the industries and the occupations as tightly as people think, but there is a general difference between college majors and elsewhere in fields of study because-

Jamie Merisotis:
It's that linearity of people believing that the major is the job that I think is a real problem. And I've toyed with the idea of ways in which higher education can actually de-emphasize the major without unraveling what Tony was talking about earlier, which is that the American model really is about both content specific and generalizable knowledge, which I think is really, really valuable in a lot of ways. But this misinterpretation of the major as being the equivalent to the career, to the job pathway, I think is complicated.

I remember Tony, some data you did a few years ago showing the over-weighting of English majors in financial services, for example, as an interesting example of that, that people would say, "Well, what do English majors do? Do they become writers or something?" It's like, well, they're actually over-weighted in financial services. Why? Well, because they're really good critical thinkers and they're really good communicators. And in financial services you need a few people who understand the data, but you need a lot of people who understand the customers, the relationships, all of those things. That's why they're over over-weighted in financial services. So just an interesting example, but that's very, very difficult to explain in the one-on-one conversations with families and students.

Lee Coffin:
But it gets to that everyone can't be a STEM person. I could not have been. That just was not the way my brain was wired. And I think there's a lot of us out there who lean towards words more than numbers or people more than codes. And I think the majors we all offer, the course of study and then the life it sets up are important to keep underscoring like, these are worth it. Don't add up all the dollars it costs to get there and say, "This payoff is not ..." There are more reasons to go to college than just your earning power, as important as that is.

And I would put out there, happiness. What you study, to me, has to sync with how you learn, how you interpret information, how you interact with people. Are you a collaborator? Are you more of a soloist? What are all those human qualities that animate an application that also come into the way someone moves through college and beyond it?

But Tony, based on your research, what's the argument for someone to study one of the low income disciplines?

Anthony Carnevale:
Well, the argument becomes public service, I think. The argument becomes the sorts of thing you're talking about that is people want to serve others, people want a mission in life, very clear. That is, we see that among minorities, for example. People who are a part of groups in America that aren't treated well, that is, they know who they are. They know what race or class they come from, and they oftentimes, there is a mission for them to make a difference for people like them.

The other piece of this is that the knowledge itself is not where the ... In some cases more than others. But the knowledge itself is only one piece of the value. So we have data in the United States and have for a long time since the Reagan administration. When you look at a job, an occupation, the way that data system works is it tells you what the levels in subject matter are for knowledge, then skill, which is very amorphous, like problem solving, critical thinking. For each occupation, these things are measured in a fairly careful way. Knowledge, skill, something called ability, that is are you creative, there's a bunch of things in each of these categories.

And then there are work values, what you value about work. So for example, when you're talking about an engineer, they have a value called realism that's very typical of people in STEM. They are interested in manipulating things, to have real and tangible impact on what they do, like a carpenter. And then there is a set of personality traits that also track with occupations, and there are scales for all these things. So being successful in an occupation is fairly complicated, much more so.

Now, in many cases you need the knowledge. But in the American labor market, one of the good things about it, I think, because it has a downside, is that the labor market is very flexible and employers will hire people who don't have specific degree-related connections to an occupation. And that is still very much the case in the American system.

Jamie Merisotis:
One quick story from me on this point. So I did a book in 2020 called Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines. I was trying to understand this question, what are the humans going to do in an increasingly technology mediated world? I had seen the early large language models, et cetera, understanding that. Tony was very helpful in my thinking on this.

But one of the things I realized is that for humans, this desire to serve others, to have impact, to do something meaningful is really, really important to who we are. And in fact, there's four decades of Gallup research that shows that even individuals at the lowest income quintile are willing to give up money for meaning when it comes to their job. That's very powerful.

That's a very powerful fact that this, what I call this virtuous cycle of learning and earning and serving others, which is really the human work life cycle, that idea of serving others and gaining meaning and value and dignity from work is super important to individuals.

And so that's on your question, I think one of the things that some people, many people are motivated by is this idea, yes, I want to earn a paycheck. A paycheck's really important. A paycheck is transformative, but for many people, the paycheck's literally not enough. They want to feel like they're making a difference, that they're contributing to a greater whole. And I think that's very powerful a point that we've got to consider as we see more and more of these changes taking place as a result of technology.

Lee Coffin:
Before we wrap, let's think about the value of college beyond earning power, because I think that's easy to forget, that people go to college and benefit from that experience in lots of ways, obvious and indirect. So what are those? How do you make the case for, especially if it's a private four-year undergraduate experience that could run a quarter million dollars at this point? Whether there's financial aid or not, people look at the price tag and say, "That's a big ticket item."

And I've said to students who doubt the cost, I say, "I look at my own experience as an undergrad and the loans I took out and my part-time jobs as a mortgage I was taking on my own future." I said, "You borrow money to buy a car." I borrowed money so I can go to college and then go to grad school. And then that was a bet I was taking on myself in terms of my earnings and my career.

But I also saw, I saw college as a first gen person as a lifestyle opportunity has brought me to a completely different social orbit, the way I think, how I understand the world around me. And I don't say that to be self-important in any way, but I think back on how my time at Trinity College just opened my perspective to things that I just didn't know.

What do either of you have to say about that as value? Because Jamie, you and the Gallup report and Forbes wrote about it's too narrow a definition of success to just talk about your earning power over your career. What's the parallel consideration that people should be thinking about when they ask, is this worth it? Why am I bothering?

Jamie Merisotis:
Yeah, I think it's a very important question. We know from lots and lots of research that there are both public, private, social, and economic benefits that come from going to college. And so those are societal as well as individual benefits.

For the individuals, there are lots and lots of things where we can point to where it's pretty clear that you gain value in your life. Things like your appreciation for who your neighbors are and the community that you live in and what's happening in that community. It has to do with the fact that you do volunteer more, you do vote more. You do contribute more to society when you have a college degree because you're more socially minded and you're more interested in the nature and direction of the world compared to people who have not had that experience.

But I think more broadly, it gets to your point, which is happiness. The research on flourishing and human wellbeing and those trends are heavily aligned with people getting a post-secondary credential. And so helping people understand that, again, Americans overwhelmingly believe that the pathway into and through college helps them get a good job. And that is certainly true, but it also gives them a good life. And it is that duality of the good job and the good life that I think is really important here.

And the good life elements of everything from, again, appreciating art and music to being able to make a difference in the community, to being a better leader of your family, all of those things, I think I would describe them ... Ask the economist this question maybe, but I would describe them all as non-economic, but extremely important benefits that come from getting a college degree.

Lee Coffin:
I love that line, the duality of a good job and a good life. It's a really poetic way of putting an exclamation point on it.

Anthony Carnevale:
This is very heavily supported in the numbers, by the way. I mean it's complicated, but all of these benefits, they're solid, there's a lot of them. And it is quite clear that there's some relationship between, especially degreed learning, the mix of specific and general learning that in the end delivers on all these things.

And we found actually, we did a study, we were asked by people in the European Union to do the American part of a study on authoritarianism and what drove it in different societies. Fascinating thing about that, it was very different from country to country. I didn't know much about this before we started, but in the end, in the United States, one of the more powerful forces that impedes or discourages the development of the authoritarian personality is the humanities in education. And it's very strong, it's not weak, and it's more true in the United States than it is in other parts of the world. I don't know why.

Lee Coffin:
I wrote down something from the New York Times podcast from September that I just want to run by you. The comment was, "Going to college used to be like investing in a treasury bill. It was solid and boring, and it was the responsible thing to do. Now it's like going to a casino." And so my question to that provocative comment is, is going to college a risk?

Jamie Merisotis:
The data don't support that view.

Jamie Merisotis:
It's a great line. It's a great line. I've seen other people repeat that, the casino line, but it is simply not true. To a certain extent, it's always been a risk. There is no guarantee. And again, Tony has lots of data on this that lots and lots of people who get a college degree do end up in career paths that look like they didn't need the college degree. Although interestingly, their earnings are often higher compared to their peers in the exact same job simply because they have the college degree. That's interesting.

I think the best example I remember, Tony, was the bartenders with college degrees have better earning histories than the bartenders without college degrees. But the reality is that overwhelmingly, your chances of being a part of the middle class and being successful in work and in life are going to be dictated by whether or not you have a college degree.

It is not a guarantee, but it is probably the best inoculation I can think of when it comes to trying to beat back the challenges of poverty, of racism, of all of the ills that impact our society today is to get a college education and contribute both to your own wellbeing and to our shared wellbeing.

Anthony Carnevale:
We're in a moment where college is under attack, that's the way I see it. Now, as somebody who came into this whole thing... Jamie and I both, I'd like to think we're reformers. But there is a move out there at the moment, and to some extent, this is political as somebody who's done a lot of political work in campaigns.

So both parties are messaging heavily, and one of my least favorite things, although it's not a case where people are lying, is the infrastructure bill. I mean, that is setting up ribbon cutting ceremonies all over America, and will do so for the next six, seven years. And at every one of those ceremonies, anybody who's anybody is going to be on that dais. And there's going to be a reporter in the audience, and the reporter's going to ask, because it's an obvious question at this moment, "Does this mean you don't need a college degree?" And representatives of both parties, because I follow this somewhat, always say, "Yes, this means you don't need a college degree."

So there are all sorts of forces that are part of this. College is going through a bit of a bad time reputationally, and it's not fair, it's not true. As Jamie says, not all college is good. There are lots of issues and problems and so on and so forth. But in the end, college education is taking a bit of a beating.

There's an easy answer to this. The median wage for a BA in the United States right now is $78,000 a year. That's the median. The person right in the middle. And the median wage for somebody with a graduate degree is 100. Those are facts. Now, of course, there are people on either side of the median. If you go far enough down, I think the bottom 15 or 20% maybe of college graduates, their wages are not so good.

Lee Coffin:
So my last question parallels my first question. So when I asked you about your journey from high school to college, you both gave really interesting answers. So as graduates of liberal arts institutions, was college worth it?

Jamie Merisotis:
100%. As I said, it not only transformed my life, it transformed the lives of everyone in my family and I think will do so for generations to come. And obviously in my case, I believe so strongly in it, I've made it my life's work. So absolutely.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. Tony?

Anthony Carnevale:
Yeah, same with me. And I'm one of the sorts of people that went into this with a bias, which was I really wanted to go to the Maine Maritime Academy if I had to go to college. But people talked me out of that, got me money for Colby, and I went to Colby.

But I was one of those young people who had an experience. I took a course called Intellectual and Cultural History of Modern Europe, which is not something I thought I would be even vaguely interested in. Aroostook County, I had never really left Aroostook County, if you know where that is, in northern Maine…

Lee Coffin:

Anthony Carnevale:
So Europe and let alone the rest of the world. But I was absolutely mesmerized by that class. I mean, it had an effect on me that I've never forgotten. And I do read work literature because you got to keep up, but what I read otherwise is stuff like that.

Lee Coffin:
I'm smiling as I listen to both of those answers because Tony, you just said, it's an experience and the value of that experience, the degree, the journey, the connections, the way you question yourself, the way you stretch yourself, the people you meet that you wouldn't have normally met, all valuable in ways that you can't always put a data point on them, but matter. They've mattered to me, too.

But I really appreciate both of you for joining me on Admissions Beat today, but also for the work you're doing in this space alongside the colleges to help people understand that yes, college is worth it. So Jamie, Tony, thanks so much.

Jamie Merisotis:
Thank you.

Anthony Carnevale:
Thank you. Good discussion.

Lee Coffin:
And this is Lee Coffin from Dartmouth College. I will see you next week where we'll continue the conversation with another episode. See you the