As college students head back to school and costs rise faster than inflation even using a conservative measure, it’s worth revisiting the dispute about the value of a degree. In May, David Leonhardt declared the debate closed, citing a paper by David Autor and explaining that the total cost of college is about negative $500,000 over the course of someone’s lifetime. (As Leonhardt notes, the original source for this estimate is a 2012 journal article by Avery and Turner.) To calculate the return to college, researchers basically subtract the costs of tuition and forgone wages from the average additional lifetime earnings associated with a college degree.

Leonhardt uses this half a million dollar number to argue that “from almost any individual’s perspective, college is a no-brainer.” Still, what does this say about the 30 percent of recent high school graduates in 2009 who decided against attending college or the share that started but never finished? Instead of blaming people without a college degree for their poor labor market prospects, it’s worth exploring why so many choose not to go to college or fail to finish even if they start. What factors including the system for financing a college education lead so many young people to leave so much money on the table?

While the returns to college argument justifies students paying any tuition as long as average wages can make up for it over the average person’s lifetime, the half a million dollar number deserves closer scrutiny. To start, the number is a rough average of the paper’s $590,000 estimate for men and $370,000 calculation for women. Clearly, while women benefit tremendously from college on average, men benefit more.

The issues get more complicated with a better understanding of Avery and Turner's methodology. The appendix of their academic paper notes that they restrict the sample to white workers. While calculating new estimates for people of color is beyond the scope of this blog post, it’s fair to assume that the returns to college are lower for these students due to factors such as labor market discrimination. Therefore, an obvious way to encourage more students of color to attend college would be to increase funding for education and thus reduce the amount of money students must borrow.