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The economic implications of graduating college at an older age

David Brancaccio, Chris Farrell, and Alex Schroeder Jan 15, 2024
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"Late bloomers account for more than half of the growth in the share of college-educated adults from 1960 to 2019," said Marketplace senior economics contributor Chris Farrell. FG Trade Latin/Getty Images

The economic implications of graduating college at an older age

David Brancaccio, Chris Farrell, and Alex Schroeder Jan 15, 2024
Heard on:
"Late bloomers account for more than half of the growth in the share of college-educated adults from 1960 to 2019," said Marketplace senior economics contributor Chris Farrell. FG Trade Latin/Getty Images
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College is for the young, right? Parents assume their children will go to college right after high school, although some take a gap year or two before heading off to earn the next degree. Most economic studies use this standard path toward higher education. The assumption is reasonable, yet it’s misleading enough that it’s worth taking a fresh look. It turns out a surprising number of college graduates are “late bloomers.”

Chris Farrell is Marketplace’s senior economics contributor in St. Paul. He spoke about this with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young,” right? Others, including me, like to say that, “College is wasted on the young.” You’ve been looking at research on college graduates who are, what — they’ve gotten to it a little later than typical, right?

Chris Farrell: And the thing is, David, this is a much bigger trend than I ever realized. Now, for the discussion about a college education, age becomes the relevant number when we’re defining what is a late bloomer, who is a late bloomer. So there’s this recent paper, “Late Bloomers: The Aggregate Implications of Getting Education Later in Life.” And these three economists, they calculate that one-fifth of four-year college graduates complete their education later in life. So they call these college graduates “late bloomers,” meaning they got their college degree after age 30.

Brancaccio: Now, I mean, we do reporting on this program that a college degree does not make good economic sense for everyone. But most teenagers still hear the message very loud that if you want to get a job with decent benefits, and OK pay, and prospects for promotion, go to college and graduate and don’t waste your time.

Farrell: And, as you know, this message has been heard. There has been a substantial increase in the number of college graduates over the decades. But what I didn’t realize, David, is the scholars find that late bloomers account for more than half of the growth in the share of college-educated adults from 1960 to 2019. Late bloomers also contributed to the narrowing of the gender and racial college share gap over this time period too.

Brancaccio: Economists have calculated the hefty rate of return on a college degree. What about the late bloomers: same or different?

Farrell: So, good news, bad news. So the good news is late bloomers get a boost to their wages after they earn a college degree, but it’s smaller than the one received by early graduates. And the authors say that their results, they suggest that current estimates of the college wage premium, which includes late bloomers, underestimate the gains from college for those who graduate in their 20s by a meaningful amount.

Brancaccio: When I hear all of this, I wonder, are colleges and universities gearing up to devote more resources toward easing the path for late bloomers?

Farrell: I wish they were. I mean, that’s the takeaway — at least for me — of studies like this. Look, colleges and universities, they need to become the centers for lifelong learning. At a time when four-year institutions, they’re dealing with declining enrollments, late bloomers — this is a potential pool of applicants. Welcoming late bloomers into the academy, that’s an opportunity for growth with the aging of the workforce.

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