Choice sits at the center of our higher-ed system. Should you go to a small college or a big state university? Should you major in biology or engineering or political science? What’s that nearby program going to cost compared with the one across town?
No surprise, then, that among policy wonks, foundations, and some legislators, giving prospective students better information about education outcomes has become the holy grail. That way, the theory goes, everyone can make a better decision.
What if, though, this whole system is more complicated? What if some people, often from low-income families, are making rational decisions to choose programs that don’t lead to the best returns in the long run?
A new working paper
published by the National Bureau of Economic Research posits just that. The authors, using a combination of deep interviews with hundreds of young people in poor neighborhoods in Baltimore and national survey data, find that some low-income students anticipate shocks that may derail their education. “They thus opt for shorter, more convenient, less challenging and, often, less lucrative educational programs that they expect to be able to finish and believe will lead to a job.”
Essentially, if life has already thrown you a bunch of curveballs — having a parent in prison, getting evicted from your apartment, seeing a sister get killed — you may rationally figure that more such shocks are ahead. Signing up for a four-year bachelor’s degree that you’ll have to drop out of could make less sense.
the editor of Work Shift, drew attention to the paper
this week. She talked with Nicholas Papageorge,
an economist, co-author of the report, and associate director of the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University.
“When you see people doing things that don’t pass the cost-benefit analysis, there’s a tendency to say they’re wrong about something, they don’t have the right information or beliefs, or they’re impatient.”
But often, Papageorge said, some factor—such as the odds of life events keeping them from ever graduating—is just missing from the analysis.
Yes, more information about the value of degrees would be great. But Papageorge said he didn’t get a sense that young people in these very poor neighborhoods of Baltimore fail to see the value of college.
“When you talk to these kids, they tend to say that if you can get through a four-year degree—which they don’t think they can do—you’re going to be rich. So if anything, they may be overestimating the returns.”
Colleges increasingly are providing “wrap-around supports” to help students with mental health, food and housing insecurity, and transportation. Emergency grants got more attention during the pandemic as well, a recognition, Elyse points out, “that a flat tire or overdue childcare payment can easily spiral into missing work, missing classes, and being forced to drop out.”
Papageorge said many of these students feel their lives aren’t stable enough for college: “It’s their sense of how together everything has to be to be successful at college.”
So maybe the information students need is not just graduation rates or future salaries but the assurance that colleges are willing to help when the inevitable shocks arrive.
+ Check out more coverage of the connections between education and work at Work Shift.