The value of a public university

An essay in the Wall Street Journal misrepresents the career prospects for public university students.

Editorial board


On April 26, the Wall Street Journal published an essay written by Jeffrey Selingo, the author of a forthcoming book addressing the future of higher education.

While admitting that there are problems with higher education, Selingo’s essay misrepresents earnings potentials as a criticism of the four-year degree from what he calls “Podunk U” as a derogatory term for state colleges and universities, vis-à-vis Harvard University.

First, Selingo states that degrees from those institutions carry a premium over state colleges. However, Selingo offers little to dispel other moderating factors, including geography. Schools that Selingo cites include Harvard and Stanford, both of which are located in two of the highest cost of living areas in the nation. Does Selingo account for regional variations in cost of living in his analysis?

Also, Stanford and Harvard admit far fewer students from  those who performed the best in high school and college entrance exams. But what if those same students had attended a state university,  as many bright students do for any number of reasons?  Does Selingo control for student’s ability when entering?

The next major criticism of state universities Selingo offered is that graduates of two-year technical colleges make more in their first year than graduates with four-year degrees, while admitting that earnings potential throughout a lifetime for those with bachelor’s degrees is higher. Such emphasis on short-term earning potential is poor financial planning.

Curriculum at the undergraduate level is quite similar across many schools: The difference lies in the other opportunities offered outside the classroom and what a student makes of their time in college.       While higher education could see some systematic improvements, framing the discussion in terms of pop-stats selected for rhetorical value adds little to the discussion.