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The opportunity cost of going to college is almost never discussed, yet it is quite high, so high that it is seriously impacting the broader American economy. For non-economists, “opportunity cost” is one of the most important concepts in economics. Because of scarcity we only have limited resources, and when we use those resources to do something like go to college, we cannot use them for other things that we also believe are desirable.

By far the most important resource we use in producing goods and services is labor or “human capital.” Based on what we pay owners of resources, we can say that roughly two-thirds of all production of goods and services is attributable to direct human effort – work. When kids go to college, they forego entering the labor force in a major, full-time manner. When six or seven percent of the entire American population is in college, that means a significant reduction in work effort occurs because otherwise highly productive persons in the physical prime of their lives are only lightly utilized in making things or providing services.

Today, only slightly over 59 of every 100 Americans of working age actually work, down from almost 66 in 2000. If we had the employment-population ratio of 15 years ago, we would have at least 16 million more working Americans today – an increase of over 10 percent. Our output would be probably the better part of a trillion dollars higher. The push for “college for all” is one reason we have less work effort today (to be sure, the modern welfare state has also lowered work incentives a lot for other reasons).

The college for all crowd says higher education augments one’s human capital, and we forego output today from working to bolster output tomorrow from more productive workers. And, no doubt, that is sometimes true. We have many productive engineers and accountants who gained important skills in college, for example. But is that necessarily true of all college graduates, particularly when Arum and Roksa tell us that graduating college seniors typically have only marginally better critical reasoning skills that freshman? And when over 40 percent of those entering four year colleges fail to graduate in six years? What if millions of those who do graduate take jobs similar to those without that college education? What if the debt incurred to pay for the college leads many to delay marrying, delay buying houses? There is evidence that to some extent the push for college has led to all of these unintended consequences.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has published great work showing that there is a very severe underemployment problem amongst college graduates, and other equally good research demonstrating what many of us have been saying for years: the student financial aid programs such as subsidized student loans, have pushed up the cost of college. Now a sister Federal Reserve Bank, namely Philadelphia, is jumping into the act.

The Philly Fed in a new study shows that high student loan debt is preventing young potential entrepreneurs from starting new businesses – they cannot afford the necessary debt. Opportunity cost again: if I borrow a lot to go to college, I cannot afford to borrow to start a business.

Enrollment in all forms of higher education today are up roughly 50 percent or seven million from what they were in 1990. What if enrollments had only risen proportionate to population growth – we would have three or four million fewer enrolled in college today. Would our nation be better or worse off? No one knows for sure, but the continued rise in the proportion of Americans with a college education has been accompanied by a sharp reduction in the rate of economic growth. I bet we would have fewer underemployed recent graduates. I bet we would have less than 17 percent delinquency rates on college loans, and far less than a trillion dollars in loan debt. I bet we would have a higher rate of labor force involvement and entrepreneurial activity among the young. And I bet we would be spending tens of billions less on higher education, and at least a little bit more on capital goods investment, highway construction, et cetera. In short, I suspect we would have been better off as a nation.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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This is a short article discussing the concept of opportunity cost and college. Provide your views on this topic.Do you agree/disagree with the article? Why? What are your thoughts on the current employment landscape of college graduates? Provide any insight on this topic on a specific industry, your own experience, or the experiences of people that you know who have already graduated.

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