What's Magic About a College Education

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

The United States spends over $600 billion a year on higher education, and decades of research show that those with a college degree earn more and have a better quality of life. Last month, two distinguished economists announced the shocking finding that college graduates also live 10 years longer than non-graduates. I wrote about the implications of that gap last month, and today I want to spend some time on how it emerged — and why it seems to be growing.

When I asked Sir Angus Deaton, the co-author of the new paper, how he accounted for this astonishing rift in longevity by education level, he responded right away. “Easy answer,” he wrote. “We don’t know!” 
That’s because there are some big holes in the data that make it hard to pinpoint causation. Harvard economist Raj Chetty studies life outcomes based on a massive database of tax returns, but that data doesn’t include educational levels. Deaton and Anne case-based their study on death certificates that do include education level but not income. As a result, it’s hard to untangle the interplay of education, income, and other confounding variables.

Professor Deaton, an outspoken advocate for universal healthcare, suggested that those without a college degree are less likely to have adequate healthcare because of lack of insurance and the complexity of the system itself. There is no doubt this contributes to increased mortality. The well-established lifetime income premium associated with a college degree undoubtedly contributes, as well.

But the enormous size of the gap, and the fact that it seems to be growing, suggests there may be other factors at play. In their book, Deaths of Despair, out last year, Deaton and Case dwelled on the role that social esteem plays in life outcomes. In a society where the gap between winners and losers has widened, and where most high-status jobs require a college degree, the self-esteem associated with a college education may play a real role in health and longevity. The prominent moral philosopher Michael Sandel wrote a whole book last year on the need to restore American society’s sense of dignity and respect for all forms of work, not just white-collar knowledge work. “We need to better reward the social and economic contributions of work done by the majority of Americans, who don’t have college degrees,” Sandel argued. “And we need to reckon with the morally corrosive downsides of meritocracy.”

I think that’s right. But it still leaves an important unanswered question: Is there something intrinsic about the process of earning a college degree, some substantive change from the experience itself, that leads to better life outcomes?

The preeminent educational historian, Jonathan Cole, in his book The Great American University, offers a place to start. Cole found that a distinct set of values underpins the American university, and they hold mostly true across different institutions and fields of study. Things like free debate and productive skepticism of received wisdom; a universalism that rewards fact-based argument over dogmatic belief; and a sense of the common good, a mission to serve the broader society.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, and no institution achieves these foundational principles perfectly. But Cole’s point is that higher education, writ large, has a culture that aspires to basic tenets of openness and inquiry and that inevitably shapes the students who pass through.

Most students have never met a professor when they enter college. Getting to know people who have made academia their life’s work adds a novel perspective to their world view. The whole concept of a marketplace of ideas, or an organized attempt to produce brand new knowledge, is new to most young people when they set foot on campus. The skeptical mindset central to academia is a productive habit in an economy that demands constant adaptation, and in a media environment where dogma and misinformation can easily lead people down dangerous paths.

Not only are students exposed to new ideas but also to a diverse community where they are likely to interact with people different than themselves. The long-term social impact of knowing people who are “different” should not be underestimated. It’s a critical feature in a world that’s changing fast. In North Carolina, half of all adults now living in the state were born elsewhere, so a willingness to meet and welcome new people is crucial.

I taught a first-year honors seminar for many years involving a group of students almost all of whom held merit scholarships. They were highly motivated, accomplished, and often overconfident. Early in the semester, I asked who in the class had heard of Peter Drucker, the leading thinker in the world on entrepreneurship.  Silence.  After what seemed like an eternity, a young woman slowly raised her hand and gave a perfect summary of Drucker and his theories. I asked where she’d learned all of that. She responded, “In high school in Singapore.”

Her classmates were caught off guard. Eyebrows raised; eyes widened. All of these students with solid accomplishments but narrow life experiences suddenly had their world view expanded beyond North Carolina, beyond the United States. They saw their place in the world a little differently and understood that contributions (and competition) would come from a much wider circle of people than they imagined. I’ve seen the same dynamic play out in reverse when some unbelievably well-prepared student from a private prep school gets upstaged in class by a brilliant kid from rural North Carolina.

Those horizon-widening moments certainly aren’t the sole reason college graduates live a decade longer than those without a BA. But when you look at the broad range of factors that Deaton and Case have explored in their work — not just health care and income, but social connections, a sense of purpose, a feeling of efficacy and esteem in the world — I believe that the actual experience of college makes a difference. If we’re doing our jobs right, it must.

Whatever is driving the wedge between college-educated Americans and their fellow citizens, we need to untangle it quickly. It is indisputable that a degree is valuable but lacking one shouldn’t cost a decade of life. We need to better understand what’s delivering such a stark benefit to our graduates and we need to get it in the hands of more people — now.


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