College: a Lifetime of Debt with Diminishing ROI

Yesterday I blogged about attending Linda Brown's Saturday "Charter School" classes in the late 1990s. The first task in a charter proposal is to write a "mission statement." Oy. These things tend to be meaningless. Vague. Blah blah enrich blah blah child's creativity, intellect, emotional blah blah blah development.

Linda pushed me to write a coherent mission. I wrote a lot of stupid stuff but one part endures: "Prepare students to succeed in college and beyond."

For our first 11 years, our team tried to build a school where kids to defy the odds -- arrive way behind grade level, yet succeed in college. We're learning more every day about the "college successes" and failures. Many failures. But what about the "beyond?" What about their jobs?

Tracy Brisson wrote me an interesting email. She's a TFA alum who used to work for NYC Department of Education. Now she helps recent college grads find jobs. I share this with her permission:

My answer to the question you posed in your blog post: yes, absolutely, as educators, we should be held responsible in some way for our students' economic earnings.

She explains:

I am a scrappy kid from a fishing town in Massachusetts and if I hadn't received a huge scholarship from Syracuse University, I wouldn't be anywhere I am today. That being said, I am not for the traditional "college for all" movement in this day and age. It's SO broken that

average students just accumulate a lifetime of debt with diminishing ROI.

This has always been my issue with many folks in the TFA crowd and their privilege -- "This is the path me and my friends took, so if you take it, it will work for you."

My issue isn't the traditional liberal/progressive criticism of "Why do you think you have the right to tell poor people what to do?" It's just not the best option for most people. There has to multiple paths to success, partnered with suitable earnings.


One challenge in charter school world right now is that, to the best of my knowledge, the only high-performing charters have college prep theme. Many of the charters with a career focus and not a college focus seem to be both bad at academics and bad at careers. But this is just my impression.

The popular maxim is: "If you get a college degree, you'll earn $1 million more over a lifetime."

But it turns out these studies are glib. The payoff is more complicated.

First, we need to sort by major.

Next, we should take college debt into account.

Third, we need to examine how social capital affects a college grad's ability to snag a job.

We'd probably all believe in this vision: a world where parents and kids have lots of good school choices. Some prepare kids very well for college. Some prepare kids very well for work (and hopefully the possibility of college later).

But that's not our current world. If you are an individual charter school founder, you get to create one school. Not a marketplace.

Imagine that No Excuses Charter XYZ has 100 fairly poor kids who win the admissions lottery. These numbers are estimates based on KIPP's published data, other unpublished data I have from similar schools, and some guesses).

a. 30 go on to graduate from college and get pretty good jobs (plus debt they can afford)
b. 15 get college degrees but don't get good jobs; plus they have a lot of debt
c. 15 start college, don't finish, but manage to get good jobs (plus debt they can afford)
d. 25 start college, don't finish, don't get good jobs; plus they have a lot of debt
e. 15 get high school diplomas only, don't go to college; no debt; probably not good jobs

Meanwhile, imagine 100 identical kids who are admission lottery losers. They attend Traditional School nearby. What happens to them? Based loosely on Boston data:

a. 7 go on to graduate from college and get pretty good jobs (plus debt they can afford)
b. 3 get college degrees but don't get good jobs; plus they have a lot of debt
c. 15 start college, don't finish, but manage to get good jobs (plus debt they can afford)
d. 15 start college, don't finish, don't get good jobs; plus they have a lot of debt
e. 20 get high school diplomas only, don't go to college; no debt; probably not good jobs
f. 40 don't graduate from high school, no debt, struggle for jobs

So basically, we get some enterprising economist to add up all this. What is the total economic effect? What's the payoff for the 100 charter lottery winners (always bearing in mind that I'm describing an atypical, good charter)? How much do they earn? How much additional does the gov't gain via income taxes? How much additional does the gov't avoid paying in poverty programs (Medicaid, Section 8 housing, crime, etc)?

Of course, I just compared a good charter (not the typical) with the typical public school.

If you are thinking about launching a charter, there's another way to look at it. If you're capable of creating a good college prep school, you may also be capable of a good career oriented high school.

What if No Excuses Career High School XYZ's outcomes looked like this?

a. 40 get good jobs via apprenticeship (thanks to your preparation), with no debt
b. 40 don't get good jobs, but have no debt
c. 10 go on to graduate from college, about half get good jobs, half don't - all with debt
d. 10 drop out of high school entirely

Hmm. How do those 100 kids stack up against the inner-city kids who went to College Prep Charter? Which 100 kids fare better economically over their lives?

Okay. Back to our story. Tracy has seen a lot of college grads who can't get jobs.

When I was a TFA corps member, I wanted every one of my kids to go to college. My former sixth graders are now in their 20s and I am friends with many of them on Facebook. My kids who did graduate with college are struggling finding jobs they like that pay well enough to cover their loans.

On the other hand, my former student *A* keeps his expenses low, works at an AT&T store during the day, and spends the evenings as a spoken word poet across NYC. He was an amazing writer when he was 11 so I am not shocked. He is getting a great following on social media and is about to self-publish.

My other student *G*, who I worked my a** off to get into Gifted and Talent programs, didn't graduate from college because she couldn't pay tuition. She is now managing the office operations for a doctor in Manhattan after starting as a temp. She just paid cash for her first grown-up vacation with her friends to the Dominican Republic. I am immensely proud of her- that's the stuff that life is supposed to be about.

I asked Tracy to tell me about how she coaches a typical kid. She stresses networking. On steroids.

People coming to me with BAs from state schools is not a rare occurrence. Some grew up in an inner-city, some didn't. I actually find the people who grew up in inner cities are better off because cities generally have more opportunities. The common thread is young people whose parents don't bring a lot of social capital to the situation.

While every situation is different, I work with them to flip their idea of work and think of themselves as a freelancer who has to get their own clients, even if that's not what they ultimately want. I work on web presence, reading lists, and social networking strategy so they can build their own human and social capital in something they like. You must have a skill you can sell on the open market.

The process builds confidence and skills growth, and in most cases gets the attention of traditional employers. It's the stuff college does not teach. When I read the story you posted about the student and her struggles, I didn't get the sense that her sociology major had much to do with her issues.

Want to read more? Tracy recommends Mark Babbit, CEO of YouTern. He blogs advice for college students and recent grads.

Tracy's organization is here.


If you walk along this path far enough, do you know where you end up? The Met.

I get the "college for some" argument that you and Tracy pose. My trouble with this argument is that it gets reduxed to some kids just aren't smart enough for college and then we start sorting. A much more nuanced approach is to support the concept the opportunity for college for all and the opportunity for career for all. I, for one, would love to see a charter school done well where student complete all of the requirements to get into a great college and receive opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, and fellowships that can lead to stable careers at the same time. Since schools hardly exist that do either on their own, it would be highly ambitious (aka worth trying) to create this blended model.

Not to be a pain or anything, but honestly your KIPP-like charter example should take into account the attrition. Of those 100 lottery winners, it's likely 50 won't be there to graduate. So 30 on to college and graduating would be corrected to 15. And that's still better than half that again. But it's not nearly so impressive. And it is surely hurting the statistics of the comparison as well (that is, if the "good" charter had managed to keep those kids, their numbers would look worse and the "worse" alternatives would look better. On the actual topic, I agree that all kids need to be well-educated, but I'd much prefer a more Finnish model. Everyone is expected to meet a floor requirement -- basic skills you need to have by age X (16 for them) and at that point you can branch off to more college-y or to well-run and job-giving vocational studies for another 3 years. Even here, it's hard to compare because in many areas of the country vocational training has been gutted. Instead of giving kids a step up toward a real occupation, they're not given the skills or the opportunities. I'd much rather see carpenters, plumbers, painters, masons, ironworkers, HVAC workers, auto mechanics, small-scale/boutique farmers, etc. being turned out. Those are non-offshoreable jobs for the most part. Some of those workers may decide to go back to college (or community college) to either work toward a related degree or to learn how to run a business. Win win. But we are not offering those options or articulating those paths well at all to current students. And that's a huge disservice -- to them and to our economy, as well!

Robert- I agree with you. I'd love to see a "social capital" type program in K-12 where everyone has to be able to talk about their abilities with confidence, create a professional web presence, and be able to prove they can network online and in-person. (It's on my list for my business in the next few years, actually). It's a hard sell to a lot of people in the K-12 establishment because it's seen as "soft," or something a well-intentioned volunteer mentor can do. I always tell people who praise Peter Thiel's program or talk about all the entrepreneurs who don't have degrees that there is a huge difference between not being able to get into an Ivy League institution and deciding to drop out of one on your own terms.


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