CHICAGO -- If there’s one thing public policy researchers fear, it’s that they’ll share a finding with the potential to oversimplify a complex, wide-ranging issue.
Such has been the case with a recent Brookings Institution blog post — “Is Starting College and Not Finishing Really That Bad?” — by Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney.
It has inspired news coverage topped with headlines such as “Even for dropouts, college pays” and “Dropping out of college isn’t worst-case scenario.”
A more accurate description is: Dropping out isn’t the worst-case scenario under the best of circumstances, but you still want to avoid it if you can.
Looney was concerned by some of the coverage. “Certainly not the message we intended to send and I’ve been trying to get that across to everyone I’ve talked to since the piece was published,” he told me. In our conversation, he spoke about the nearly innumerable factors that go into whether a person who doesn’t complete college can still benefit from partial post-secondary studies.
The data seem clear-cut: Greenstone and Looney found that students who begin two- and four-year colleges but fail to complete a degree have lifetime earnings that are roughly $100,000 higher than those of their peers who ended their education after high school.
This is in comparison to a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree who, over a lifetime of work, would earn over $500,000 more than an individual with just a high school diploma.
“But one big thing to keep in mind is that we’re, of course, looking at the average and there will be better and worse outcomes for individuals,” Looney said. “There are so many factors that determine that.”
If you’re talking about a student whose parents paid for the partial college experience in cash or via a loan, dropping out will obviously leave this student in a better financial position than one who has loans coming due within six months of leaving an accredited program.
But woe to those students who financed their educations with high-interest, high-risk private loans rather than subsidized federal loans — they are in an even worse position to make the most of their unfinished schooling.
This is where first-generation college students are at a profound disadvantage. They are often from lower-income families who are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of labyrinthine college financial aid processes and, as a result, are likelier to take on easier-to-navigate private loans.
It’s hard to imagine this population of college dropouts having the same likelihood of positive outcomes after walking away from the financial protection that full-time enrollment affords student borrowers. They’re also less likely to start out with social capital in the form of extended family with strong professional networks to ask for help in accessing jobs.
Post-dropout success also depends on the types of courses the student was able to complete, with a premium being on subjects that could directly relate to the types of jobs a student seeks after choosing to move directly into the workforce.
Ultimately, Looney says, the best outcomes for those who drop out of college are dependent on the very same factors as for the success of those who complete their schooling.
“Some 18-year-olds will choose to pursue engineering and beginning, but not completing, such a course of study is going to contribute to very different outcomes than if they’d pursued something like — as an exaggerated example — finger-painting,” Looney says.
“Whether those students have excelled academically and are ready to show up for class every day ready to work hard will make all the difference. Lastly, finding the right school and the right program — things such as whether the school is public, private or for-profit — will make a huge difference.
“Ultimately, with this study we provided a very abstract view of college and potential outcomes. There’s a lot to be gained from college — if you’re academically prepared, interested in a field of study and a program with a good reputation, the evidence says now is a good time to pursue that and the risk isn’t that bad.”
That’s a lot of “ifs.” Enough to warrant serious soul-searching about whether our society’s rush to prod every student toward college — irrespective of their abilities or resources — is truly worth the risk.
Follow Esther Cepeda on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.