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Would You Stay In School For Hundreds Of Thousands Of Dollars?

By John A. Tures
Professor of Political Science
LaGrange College

The authors of the best-selling book Freakonomics did an experiment where they offered cash prizes to high school students if they improved their grades.  Would it work for college students as well?  My American Experience students at LaGrange College looked into this very subject, to calculate the value of a college degree.

“Bribery works,” says Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist and co-author of the Freakonomics book, along with New York Times writer Stephen J. Dubner.  He explains how his children respond to such incentives, as most people do.  I’ve made a similar discovery with our kids.  I remember our daughter showing a babysitter her dinner.  “This is our meat, these are our veggies, these are the noodles, and these (M&Ms) are our bribes.”

So Levitt and his colleagues decided to do an experiment where they tested whether high schoolers could be “bribed” to improve their grades.  Kids who boosted all their grades (C or above, no absences or suspensions) got $50, and into a drawing to get $500 and a limo ride.

The video follows the story of Eurail King, a hard working kid who is motivated by an even harder-working mother, as well as Kevin Muncy, a deadbeat who is enabled by his mother to keep underperforming.  King improves his grades, gets $50, wins the grand prize of $500, and gets the limo ride.  Muncy actually does a little worse.

Afterward, the Chicago economists huddle with the teachers and principal.  They note some progress, but seem disappointed by the results.  They speculate about whether they should start with younger kids.

Actually, perhaps they should have focused on more money, in the bigger picture.  As former GOP Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum pointed out in the 2012 election, not finishing high school “was like an economic death sentence.”  That’s a bit exaggerated, but he’s right that there’s a high cost of dropping out, or failing to finish, that costs a lot of $ down the road.

My students decided to look at whether or not going to college, and staying in school, pays off.  Using Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2017, we found that on average, a Bachelor’s Degree holder earns $819,572 over their lifetime more than someone with just a high school diploma.  And that’s with staring the college degree holder seven years behind in income.  Even when you factor in tuition, room and board, it’s a good deal, as the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2018.

And if you pursue a graduate degree, which requires the bachelor’s degree, the earnings are even higher.  Master’s degree holders earn $988,832 more over their lifetime than one holding a high school diploma.  For professional degrees, it’s $1,893,632 more over a lifetime than the HS diploma earner.

The Chicago experiment may not have succeeded because even though the money was a quick payoff, it was chump change over a lifetime.  Educating kids, and collegians, about the true value of an education might be a better bet for convincing a student to stay focused.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.  He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2. His students Lincoln Anderson, Miguel Bailey, Kaine Baker, Amy Channell, Kiera Eubanks, Jonathan Evans, Taylor Hamm, Tiffany Jackson, Chandler Kasprowicz, Savannah Laney, Ace Moncrief, Ifeoma Odiete, Dustey Reeves, Tora Sledge-Freeman, Luke Turley and Dawson Weaver conducted the research.