Bryan Caplan  

What Every High School Junior Should Know About Going to College

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EconLog reader Meretta Marks sent me the following request:
Would you consider the following topic for your EconLog blog:

"What every high school junior should know before thinking of going to college"'s the beginning of the school year in high school.  Many members of the junior class are starting to think about planning for college, i.e. do they want to go and why, how they should start the process, what questions should they think to be asking, etc.

Here's what I'd say...

Dear Juniors,

You've spent the last eleven years of your life in school.  When you started, you were a child, and treated like a child.  Now you're almost an adult, and you're finally facing some adult choices.  One of the biggest: Should you stop school after you graduate from high school, or continue on to college?

Going to college definitely sounds better.  Almost every authority figure in your life - educators and family alike - recommend it to each and every student.  But as you may have noticed, authority figures are often untrustworthy.  Indeed, they usually bend the truth whenever honesty makes them look bad.  This doesn't mean you shouldn't go to college, but it is a reason to second-guess the party line, to seek out ugly facts parents and educators would rather ignore. 

Fortunately, you need not seek far.  Unlike most educators, I put candor above social acceptability.  Skim my writings if you don't believe me.  In all candor, then, here's what I have to say about going to college. 

1. College is a good deal for good students, a mediocre deal for mediocre students, and a poor deal for poor students. 

2. Once in a long while, a poor student morphs into good student.  But expecting any particular poor student - yourself included - to morph into a good student is wishful thinking. 

3. How do you know if you're a good, mediocre, or poor student?  Look at your past academic performance - your grades and standardized test scores.  If you're in the top 30%, you're good.  If you're in the next 20%, you're mediocre.  If you're in the bottom half, you're poor.
4. This 30/20/50 breakdown is relative to all American high school students.  If your high school is academically strong, the breakdown is probably more like 45/30/25.  If your high school is academically weak, it's probably more like 10/20/70.  If this baffles you, I'm afraid you're probably not a good student.

5. The main reason why college is a good deal for good students, a mediocre deal for mediocre students, and a poor deal for poor students: good students usually finish college, mediocre students usually don't, and poor students almost never do.  And most of the payoff for college comes from finishing.

6. The secondary reason why college pays better for better students: hard majors pay better than easy majors, and better students gravitate toward harder majors.

7. One bad argument against college: "What professors teach isn't relevant in the real world."  In the labor market, degrees in the most irrelevant subjects still open doors and raise pay.  Many jobs simply require a college degree in... whatever.  The difficulty of your major matters a lot more to employers than its relevance.

8. Completion rates at two-year colleges are well below those at four-year colleges - even for students who look the same on paper.  If you can't handle a four-year college, you probably can't handle a two-year college either.  Two-year college is not a happy medium between four-year college and no college.

9. When you decide whether to go to college, you should consider the college experience as well as the career benefits.  But the college experience is greatly overrated.  A good rule of thumb: If your studies bore you in high school, they'll probably bore you in college too.

10.  Don't go to college because you have no idea what career to pursue.  Most recent college graduates feel the same bewilderment.  In both cases, you need to dive into the labor market and try your luck. 

High school juniors, I don't want to crush your dreams.  But I'd rather crush your dreams than see you waste years of your lives and many thousands of dollars.  When teachers and parents reassure you that "Every student is a good student," that is a flowery lie. 

Suppose your 150-pound friend dreams of being a professional football player.  Would a true friend urge him on?  No, he'd warn his mid-weight friend that he is astronomically unlikely to succeed in football, and needs to consider more realistic careers.  I'm trying to play the same role for mediocre and poor students who expect to succeed in college.

Please don't get mad at me.  I am only a messenger.  If you're going to get mad at anyone, get mad at all the authority figures who give you counter-productive advice to spare your feelings - and their own.

In friendship,

Bryan Caplan
Professor of Economics
George Mason University

COMMENTS (24 to date)
michael hamilton writes:

I would add this:

11. Assuming you've listened to the advice above and you're the type of person who will benefit from college (i.e. a good student):

If you can't get into one of the top 25 universities in the US, returns to rankings diminish very quickly. A state school ranked 90th in the country that costs 10% of Expensive Private School ranked 75th in the country is a much better deal. Go with the cheapest option. It's not worth loading up on debt for a small marginal increase in prestige.

HH writes:

You've spent the last eleven years of your life in school.

If it's the beginning of junior year, then it's been ten years in school.

...I know, I have problem.

Rocinante writes:

To Michael Hamilton - top 25 is exceedingly narrow. Even Bill Bennett says top 150. It also depends on how much money your parents have. If your parents have money and are paying, do you have something better to do with your time?

michael hamilton writes:


Is University of San Diego 10 times better than UC Riverside? That's the cost differential. They're ranked the same.

Go with the cheap school.

Even if it's your parents money, it will eventually be yours (this is less true the more siblings you have).

Sol writes:

The last bit of Rule 9 doesn't apply if your high school studies bore you because they are too easy...

Thomas Sewell writes:

K 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Starting 11th grade, 11 previous years in school...

I'm pretty sure he's referring to the U.S. school system, as above.

Robert writes:

Sol, I disagree. Aside from a handful of classes most of my high school and college career was tedious. I never ended up finishing college on my first try. Now, at 37, I'm back again working towards a bachelor's degree. I only returned to school since having a degree is required for advancement with my employer. The classes are just as dull and uninspiring as before. My microeconomics class in particular was painful and was lead by a terrible professor.

RPLong writes:

IMO, this post focuses too much on the question of college vs. not-college. The question of whether to go to college is irrelevant outside the context of what the other alternatives are.

The question Caplan should have answered, but did not is, Assuming college is not the right choice for me, what is my next-best alternative?

Saying simply, "Enter the workforce" does not answer this question in any sort of meaningful way.

David R. Henderson writes:

Excellent, excellent, excellent.

Flocccina writes:
Suppose your 150-pound friend dreams of being a professional football player. Would a true friend urge him on? No, he'd warn his mid-weight friend that he is astronomically unlikely to succeed in football, and needs to consider more realistic careers.

And that is why I hated the move Rudy.

NathanP writes:

I normally agree with most of Caplan's sentiment on higher ed. Though I thought I would chime in since I was in the bottom 50% of my HS graduating class (2009) and an eventual graduate of a top 50 university (2013) who is now employed with a white collar job. Couple of points to keep in mind:

1. Some students who lack maturity and direction in HS and do not perform well. This is not to say they are mediocre or below average in overall intelligence, some people are just late bloomers and are quite capable of attaining a college. I was one of those.

2. Regardless of mediocre or below average HS performance, by just going to college the institution can be a strong structural setting to find "ones niche" which puts students on a path toward success in said discipline. This is what college did for me.

3. I agree with RPLong on this one. It is easy just to say "enter the laborforce" to those poor performing HS students. If a student graduating high school does not have an ounce of entrepreneurial endeavor in their body, this is not a great suggestion. This is not the the pre-globalization U.S. economy where HS grads can find solid jobs in manufacturing on a whim. Non-entrepreneurial HS grads who just whimsically enter the labor force are ignorantly leaving themselves susceptible toward future technological displacement and the "Average is Over" economy that is going to render theses types of individuals as next to useless.

Martha writes:

I would add, "What can I do if I don't go to college?" Teachers and politicians have drummed it into students that they _must_ go to college because it makes their HS look better to say that 90% of their students go on to college, etc. However, as you state, not everyone is cut out to be a successful student in college and it's a terrible waste of _many_ thousands of dollars if you do not graduate.

On the other hand, there are good jobs out there for HS grads in the trades, in construction, in manufacturing, in the oil and gas business. Heck, you practically have to be a computer tech now to be a car mechanic. They need to compare college to the other options out there.

LD Bottorff writes:

I have to agree with Professor Caplan on this one. If you don't have the academic preparation, you need to be prepared for a very difficult time in college. It will cost a lot of money. It could leave you discouraged, deeply in debt, and without a useful job skill if you don't complete your degree. Sure, some dreamers have what it takes to succeed, regardless of what the numbers say. For most of us, grades and test scores are warning signs that we should heed.
And Amen to Martha, and Michael Hamilton.

NZ writes:

Here's a better way to think about "entering the labor force":

1. Do you already know what you're good at/what you want to do?

Hey, some high school juniors do. In their case, the next question is:

2. Does that job require a college degree?

In many cases the answer will be "No" in which case the next question is:

3. Can you learn how to do that by going online or to the library or by hanging around a pro for a few years?

If the answer is yes, then that's what you should do instead of college.

If the answer to #1 is "No", then I say "Think about working for a few years after high school, even if it's just flipping burgers or something like that. It's not a bad idea to take some basic 'gen eds' at a local community college too. It's not terribly expensive and it will help structure your time and save you time and money later if you decide to go to college. It's also a good way to meet other people, maybe even your future spouse--and it's a great time to do that."

If the answer to #1 is "Yes" but #2 is also "Yes", then obviously, "Go to college, if it's a realistic career goal."

If the answer to #1 is "Yes", #2 is "No", and #3 is "No", well...I can't think of any cases where that would be true. Can anyone else?

Mike W writes:

Join the military...largest corporate employer in the world, provides employee training, pays decently, opportunities to can be more rewarding than most no-skill private sector jobs. Might even decide to make it a career and get pension and life-time medical at twenty years.

Sam D writes:

Is there any research on UK Universities? I think price wise they are probably comparative to a top 50 US (once financial aid and the like is factored in) and I'm pretty sure the drop out rate is much lower. Also the degree is only three years long. Might looking abroad be good advice then?

Andy writes:

I think timing is incredibly important - it's not just a question of college vs. no college, but also when to attend college and when to make the decision. There's nothing wrong with waiting a few years to attend college or even waiting to make the decision on whether to go to college at all.

I would advise a High School junior to keep their options open to include the potential of attending college in the future even if, today, they don't meet the Bryan Caplan criteria (and I agree with criteria, btw.)

NZ writes:

@Mike W:

Holy cow I forgot about the military! Yes! This is a great but overlooked option for a lot of kids, especially smart kids. And the with GI bill it's really worthwhile.

Bostonian writes:

High school students should consult the college graduation rate calculator at , based on the report "Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions" , which asks for their SAT or ACT scores, high school GPAs, race, and sex. The calculator was defined to predict the graduation rate of a student body, which is why it asks for the percentages of males and females and whites/blacks/Hispanics/Asians, but it can be used by individuals. A white girl would set the female and white percentages to 100%.

Matt writes:

I would add:

If you do go to college, choose which university to attend based on your SAT score. If the 80/20 range for flagship state U is 1050-1270 and you scored 1400, go elsewhere. Go study where your peers will challenge you and share a similar level of intelligence. Likewise, if you only scored 1150, you will fit right in at state U and save a lot of money in the process.

Tom writes:

I definitely agree with NathanP. I too graduated in the bottom half of my HS class (thanks to gym and chorus, or else I may not have made it out of the bottom quarter). Some kids take time to mature as did I. After 4 years of military, I graduated summa cum laude from a top 60 national public university and completed a Master's in econ from GMU as part of the Ph.D. program...even had Bryan for a class!

I don't doubt that statistically speaking Bryan is correct, but don't be completely discouraged by college if you are in the bottom half.

Also agree with the fact that the military can be a fantastic option for some. Quickly discovered that while a military career wasn't for me, it really helped me to mature.

CD writes:

Just to add to the above, a lot of students benefit from a few years between high school and college to earn some money and work through late adolescence. While purely academic skills matter, resilience and the ability to plan time make a large practical difference in college success, and the world of work can teach that.

Eric Rasmusen writes:

I like the post, and especially the point that the effect of college is to turn an 18-year-old with no idea of how to get a job into a 22-year-old with no idea of how to get a job. High school grads who don't like going to classes should be encouraged to take a couple of years off, one to flip burgers and look for a good job, and one with the good job. Maybe *all* students should do that. Then they'll realize the opportunity cost of college.

I was just reading Stephen Pinker's recent article on the Ivies. He complains that elite colleges select not the brightest students, but "well-rounded" ones who spend half their time in high school and college on extra-curriculars, so that having a Harvard-quality faculty is a waste for them. Those students are still smart, but they should probably be going straight to Wall Street instead of spending 4 years on football, theatricals, or amateur music performance.

NZ writes:

One more thing:

If you're a male high school student who isn't sure what to do after graduation and you aren't a real go-getter, AND if you don't have your dad around, or if your dad is a layabout, then you should give a bit more weight to the prospect of interning or apprenticing under a male professional.

I didn't realize until late into my 20s what I had missed by not having my dad around--someone who I could see working hard all day as a competent pro. The impact on my work ethic and on my confidence as a worker was significant. I think this is a special thing of particular importance to young men.


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