Is going to college worth it?

College is expensive. Students are graduating with massive debts that take the rest of their lives to pay off. Is it worth it? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never graduated from college, so perhaps a college degree isn’t even necessary. But are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckenberg, and Joi Ito rarities in this world, or is this a more general trend?

Let’s analyze Wikipedia for some insight to this crucial question. To help with this task, I’ve created a tool that examines 100,000 biographies of notable individuals born between 1930-1980. This article summarizes my findings.

I’ve divided the results into 5 categories of notable individuals:

  1. Entertainers/Artists (famous singers, writers, etc.)
  2. Athletes, e.g. NBA and NFL professional athletes
  3. Politicians e.g. senators, presidents, protestors
  4. Business people e.g. Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs
  5. Academic nerds e.g. engineers, computer programmers, etc.

Note: A person in Wikipedia can be in more than one category. On his Wikipedia page, Bill Gates is categorized as being both an “American computer programmer” and as “Businesspeople from Seattle.”

College Education by Occupation

59% of the Americans in Wikipedia have no college information on their Wikipedia biography.
That’s surprisingly large.

Is it because Wikipedia simply lacks biographical entries on college education? Probably not. One would expect that almost all notable academics would have a college degree. 79% of the biographies of academics have higher education in their biographies – so perhaps the remaining 21% have incomplete biographical records. Assuming this is a valid proxy for under-reporting higher education, one might guess that, as a lower bound, 59% – 21% = 38% of Wikipedians don’t have a college education.

Furthermore, it stands to reason that if a college education was relevant to a Wikipedian’s achievements, the editorial community would include it in the biographical record. Therefore, even if these results are biased by an under-reporting of college information, it is still a valid indicator of the relative importance of college education to an individual’s notability.

Finally, the relative percentage of individuals with college education is consistent with expectations for the five occupations:

  • Athletes and entertainers/artists don’t require a college education to be successful (70% of the athletes and 60% of entertainers/artists don’t have college educations).
  • About half of business people went to college, but half did not.

College Rates over Time

Given the social pressure to go to college over the last few decades, one would expect that the fraction of people in Wikipedia with a college education would likewise rise over the same time preiod.

Instead, we find that education rates for people in Wikipedia have remained constant over time, despite a general trend in society toward higher education.

The dashed upward-trending line in the graph above shows how the general population is being convinced to go to college; the flat or downward-trending lines for education rates in Wikipedia show that college education has had little to no bearing on one’s accomplishments. In fact, in some disciplines it seems going to college hampers one’s ability to achieve success.

Business people show a small but significant decline in education over time (p = 0.003). Interestingly, the decline in education for businesspeople starts for those born in the 1960’s. This would correspond to being educated in the mid-1980’s which coincides with a recession where college tuition may have been impractical. It also coincides with the development of the World Wide Web which could have created other opportunities.

Entertainers can become successful at a young age without needing further education.
Just look at the Disney child actors that transition into adult roles.

Successful athletes have been showing increased college education rates over the years. This is probably a result of social pressure on college athletics programs to educate their athletes, in addition to using them to fill stadiums and power a money making machine. However, attendance may not mean graduation with a Bachelor’s degree because some athletes choose to leave college and become a professional athlete before graduation. Furthermore, athletes have been given passing grades in classes they never attended, so the ‘education’ aspect of college may be missing.

So is going to college worth it?

If you already know what you want to be – and you’ve proven you have a knack for it – then you may be better off to keep on doing what you’re doing, and skipping the college debt. Just ask the child actors, professional athletes, or all the young entrepreneurs running successful businesses without college degrees.

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