College is expensive but worth it—or is it? College graduates generally make more money than those without a degree. But a closer look reveals that for many the benefit isn’t spread equally, and a significant minority of students are worse off for having gone to college.
In a report for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, I calculated the return on investment for nearly 30,000 different bachelor’s degree programs. I estimated the median lifetime earnings for graduates of each program based on Education Department and census data, and subtracted tuition costs and the wages missed while enrolled. I then compared that number with a scenario in which those students didn’t attend college, using the earnings of high-school graduates as a baseline and then adjusting for demographics, cognitive ability and family background. As a result I was able to compare the net boost in lifetime earnings students got from each college degree.