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One thing that is needlessly holding some students back from making more money
While the mass media narrative has trended away from the importance of a degree, studies are finding that a college education might be more useful now than at any time in recent memory. - photo by JJ Feinauer
More and more, researchers are finding the impact of college has been misconstrued. While the mass media narrative has trended away from the importance of a degree, studies are finding that a college education might be more useful now than at any time in recent memory.

As I wrote last week, a study by The Hamilton Project has found that a college degree may be the best way for workers to combat the low-paying service jobs that are quickly overtaking the jobs market.

Now, a set of studies highlighted by The Upshot's David Leonhardt may be changing the tune of one of the most prominent attitudes toward education to ever come from the great recession: The belief that college simply isn't for everyone.

The "not everyone" in that argument is typically reserved for students who don't perform well in high school.

"You're a good kid," a well-meaning teacher might say, "but I just don't think college is for you."

According to Leonhardt, there are two studies, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research and Yale University, that shed greater light on underperforming students. Both found that students who barely met the admissions standards of the college they attended still benefitted greatly from college. Their grades and SAT scores may not have been as good as their peers, but college still helped them move well beyond those who couldn't meet the requirements.

"Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840," Leonhardt explained. But if the student who scored an 840 gets into college and the one who scored an 830 doesn't, the one with the lower SAT score may suffer as a result.

In fact, the Yale study found that students who scraped by the admissions cutoff with the minimal grade requirements earn $372 more per quarter on average than the ones who didn't make it. Interestingly, the study also found that men benefitted more from the "marginal admission" earnings.

Leonhardt uses this data to argue that the common wisdom that "college isn't for everyone" may be needlessly holding some students back from reaching higher economic potential.

"On both the political left and right, experts have taken to arguing that higher education is overrated," he wrote. "Yet the new findings also challenge a good bit of conventional wisdom about college."

The consensus has trended toward a belief that "one-size does not fit all." A study by the Brookings Institute from last year showed the overwhelming financial benefits of a college degree over those who either chose not to attend, or simply those who could not attend, but they included a range of caveats.

"While on average the return to college is highly positive, there is a considerable spread in the value of going to college," the study found. "A bachelors degree is not a smart investment for every student in every circumstance."

The Urban Institute's Robert Lerman made a similar case to PBS. According to Lerman, one part of the debate often left out is that not everyone wants to go to college, and there are other underused opportunities for those who fall into that category.

"No one should be deprived of the right to go if they have the capabilities and the interest," Lerman told PBS' Simone Pathe, but he also believes "channeling everyone into an academic track is a disservice to people who learn much better in a hands-on way."

But Leonhardt isn't convinced that opening up more opportunities outside the more traditional college system will do as much good as people think.

"Yes, college is worth it, and its not even close," Leonhardt wrote in a separate New York Times column last year. "For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable."
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