Tim Bartik and Brad Hershbein respond to NYT op-ed on the value of college education for people from low income backgrounds


College by itself is not “the solution” to income inequality problems, but the career earnings returns to college are still quite high for many disadvantaged groups

By Timothy J. Bartik and Brad Hershbein, Senior Economist and Economist, W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research

In a New York Times op-ed on May 17, Boston University journalism professor Ellen Ruppel Shell cited our research on the career earnings returns to college for individuals who grew up in families of different incomes. The op-ed draws the wrong conclusions from our research and omits some of our most crucial findings.

The op-ed is entitled “College May Not Be Worth It Anymore”. The New York Times’ sub-head promoting the op-ed says, “For the poor, higher education may hurt more than it helps.”

In contrast, our research finds that the earnings returns to college are still high for many lower-income and disadvantaged groups. While college may not do as much to reduce income inequality as some might hope, the poor and racial minorities still benefit a great deal from completing college.

There also are some other misinterpretations of our research in the op-ed. First, the op-ed cites our research as looking at the poor versus the non-poor, whereas our focus is below and above 185% of the poverty line. Second, the op-ed cites some of our findings as applying to males, whereas the cited findings include both genders. Third, the op-ed appears to rely on a February 19, 2016 article that Brad Hershbein wrote for Brookings at an early stage of our research, that used quadratic earnings equations to calculate career earnings. We have since refined the numbers to look at actual earnings for different age ranges, which is a better method, and get different and more accurate career earnings projections.  Curiously, Professor Snell uses a quote from our 2016 Upjohn Institute newsletter article, by which time we were already using the updated numbers, but does not then use the updated numbers.

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Date: May 18, 2018