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Freakonomics Goes to College

Season 3, Episode 4

Is a college diploma really worth the paper it’s printed on? In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, host Stephen Dubner breaks down the costs and benefits of going to college, especially during an economy that’s leaving a lot of people un- and underemployed. The data say that college graduates make a lot more money in the long run and enjoy a host of other benefits as well.  But does that justify the time and money? We’ll hear from economists David Card, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, as well as former Bush adviser Karl Rove, who made it to the White House without a college degree. Amherst College president Biddy Martin describes what an education provides beyond facts and figures, while Steve Levitt wonders if the students he teaches at the University of Chicago are actually learning anything.  Finally, a former FBI agent tells us about the very robust market for fake diplomas. Read More »





Freakonomics Goes to College, Part 2: Full Transcript

College STUDENTS: My name is Allison, this is my last semester at Duke University… we’re at Minneapolis Technical and Community College … Mitchell State University in St. Paul… first year at Wellesley University … I’m at University of North Carolina …I’m a sophomore, I go to Morehouse College … I’m Jasmine, I’m a freshman and […] Read More »





Freakonomics Goes to College, Part 2: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Freakonomics Goes to College, Part 2.”

Part 1 explored the value of a college degree and the market for fake diplomas. This episode looks at tuition costs and also tries to figure out exactly how the college experience makes people so much better off.

You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.

While there are a lot of different voices in this episode, including current and recent college grads, the episode is also a bit heavy on economists (d’oh!), including: Read More »





Freakonomics Goes to College, Part 1: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Freakonomics Goes to College, Part 1.” The gist: what is the true value these days of a college education?

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

As you can tell from the title, this is the first episode of a two-parter. There is so much to say about college that we could have done ten episodes on the topic, but we held ourselves back to two.

The key guests in this first episode are, in order of appearance:

+ Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who co-authored the book Degree Mills: The Billion-dollar Industry That Has Sold over a Million Fake Diplomas.

+ Karl Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff for President George W. Bush. Rove, it turns out, is not a college graduate. He is, however, a published author — of Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight.

+ David Card, an economist at Berkeley who has done a lot of research and writing on the value of education.

+ And our own Steve Levitt, who has this to say about college: Read More »





Freakonomics Goes to College, Part 1: Full Transcript

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hello, Mr. Ezell? Allen EZELL: Yes. DUBNER: Hi, Stephen Dubner, nice to meet you. EZELL: Stephen, nice to meet you. And you won’t believe what I’m holding in my hand. DUBNER: Let me guess because I just got a degree in psychic work, so… EZELL: I’m impressed, over the Internet? DUBNER: Of […] Read More »





A New Tool for Estimating College Costs

Last year, we did a podcast on college tuition which discussed the growing gap between a college’s “sticker price” and the actual tuition paid by low- and middle-income working families.  In order to demystify this gap — and help low-income families understand that many expensive private colleges are actually well within their reach — Wellesley College has just released a “Quick College Cost Estimator” calculator.

“The conversation that takes place around college costs is largely misguided,” Phillip B. Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley, told David Leonhardt of the Times. “People focus only on the sticker price. The sticker price is a meaningful statistic for roughly 40 percent of our students. The majority of our students are receiving financial aid, and for them the sticker price is an irrelevant number.”  While The College Board and Harvard have similar calculators, Leonhardt likes the simplicity of Wellesley’s version. “The larger point is that Wellesley’s calculator is a significant step in the growing effort to spread accurate information about college costs,” writes Leonhardt.  ”As Mr. Levine says, the widespread misunderstanding of tuition ‘clos





College Makes You Healthy

At the core of the debate over the value of college is a collage of evidence showing that it produces better lifetime outcomes not just in income but in health and happiness. How does this happen? And how can we be sure that we aren’t just seeing a selection bias — i.e., that people who go to college would have been richer, healthier, and happier in any case?

Here’s a new working paper (abstract; PDF), by Kasey Buckles, Andreas Hagemann, Ofer Malamud, Melinda Morrill, and Abigail Wozniak which purports to show the long-term health effects of a college education. Granted, their data stretches back to the Vietnam War draft (a good instrumental variable, which other researchers have used) but their findings are significant nonetheless.

We exploit exogenous variation in college completion induced by draft-avoidance behavior during the Vietnam War to examine the impact of college completion on adult mortality.  Our preferred estimates imply that increasing college completion rates from the level of the state with the lowest induced rate to the highest would decrease
cumulative mortality by 28 percent relative to the mean.  Most of the reduction in mortality is from deaths due to cancer and heart disease.  We also explore potential mechanisms, including differential earnings, health insurance, and health behaviors, using data from the Census, ACS, and NHIS.

Differential earnings and health insurance are of course related to the income boost that college graduates receive. It is the “health behaviors” that are learned/adopted by college graduates that are especially interesting.





The Economics of Higher Education, Part 4: Worldwide Returns on College

We’ve discussed before — in blog posts and a podcast — the value of a college degree. Writing for the New York Times Economix blog, Catherine Rampell points out that college degrees are particularly valuable in the U.S. “According to a report released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, across the developed world the average person who has graduated from college (either two-year or four-year) and has any earnings makes about 57 percent more than a counterpart with no more than a high school education,” writes Rampell. “In the United States, the comparable earnings premium is 77 percent.”  

Despite the value of a college degree in the U.S., college graduation rates in the U.S. are increasing at a much slower pace than in other rich countries.  And, as Rampell points out, it’s not just individuals in the U.S. that benefit from a college degree: “[T]he average return to taxpayers [of tertiary education for the average man] is $230,722 in the United States, versus less than half that, $104,737, across the developed world.” 

For more on “The Economics of Higher Education,” see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Also: Oregon is thinking about letting students pay no college tuition, instead pledging a share of their future earnings. Lest you think this is straight out of Portlandia (like this is), know that Australia runs a similar college-tuition program