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Should college students follow the money?


President Biden’s recent student loan forgiveness program has triggered a robust debate, much of it premised on the assumption that Americans should judge a college degree and a student’s major on a single criterion: How much money will the graduate make and what will be the return on investment?

In a typical critique, Allysia Finley, of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, concludes that Biden’s plan will prop up a “bureaucratic-educational complex [that] has produced too many young people with too much debt and too few skills that employers want.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is even more blunt, denouncing Biden’s plan for subsidizing degrees in what he deems useless fields, such as gender and “zombie studies.”

This narrow focus on the economic value of majors and degrees goes back many years. In 2014, for example, President Obama declared that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Although Obama later apologized to art history majors, his comments reflect what has become a self-reinforcing paradigm that dominates public perceptions of the purpose and worth of higher education. Again and again and again, public officials, commentators, and the media focus on return on investment (ROI), narrowly defined, in discussions about whether college is “worth it” and urge students to pursue degrees in business, computer science, and STEM.

Students with humanities and arts degrees do, on average, earn less than those with STEM or business degrees. They are also more likely to regret their choice of major and do not find greater meaning in their work, perceptions no doubt shaped in part by the current conventional wisdom. But the contemporary focus on the financial rewards of different majors masks wide variations in outcomes and mistakenly values higher education solely for its contribution to career earnings.

While a typical history or journalism major might expect lifetime earnings of $3.4 million compared to the $4.6 million a typical economics or chemistry major can anticipate, “many of the highest-earning humanities majors earn more than the lowest-earning STEM majors.” Moreover, where you study may matter as much as what you study. The return on investment at liberal arts colleges “is comparable to the ROI at four-year engineering and technology-related schools and business and management schools.”

And for most people, enough is as good as a feast. College degree holders, whatever their major, on average earn more, live longer, pay more in taxes, donate more to charity, use less in government support, and contribute more to their communities than those who lack a degree. Not surprisingly, then, almost 90 percent of humanities degree holders report being satisfied with their lives, a percentage that places them almost on par with STEM and business majors.

In any event, students tend to perform better in subjects that interest them, both in school and afterwards. So even if one’s only metric is lifetime earnings, it makes little sense to tell individuals whose interests, ability, and high school preparation predispose them to major in arts or humanities to switch to engineering or computer science.

And, in contrast to criticism of the humanities and the arts, which, it’s worth noting, is often grounded in partisan politics, few people, if any, make invidious comparisons between majors in computer science or engineering and business or biology simply because the starting salaries are on average much higher for the former than the latter.

Most important, an exclusive focus on monetary rewards ignores the larger purpose and the non-pecuniary benefits of higher education. A good liberal arts education inspires lifelong interests and encourages critical thinking, aesthetic appreciation, and intellectual curiosity. It helps people learn to work with others, appreciate different perspectives, and engage fully in their communities. It can lead to “better decisions about health, marriage, and parenting style,” and make people “more patient, more goal-oriented, and less likely to engage in risky behavior.” A liberal arts education can also strengthen civic literacy, improve skills in analyzing texts and oral and written communications, and foster knowledge of foreign languages and cultures.

Moreover, society needs graduates trained in the humanities and the arts as well as in STEM and business. We would have far fewer teachers, artists, social workers, journalists and other valuable if undervalued professionals if students pursued majors only in the highest-paid fields.

Students did not always worry so much about the economic return on their investment. In 1976, just under half of college freshmen cited making more money as “a very important reason for going to college.” By 2019, that number had increased to 73 percent, and it has probably gone up since. Of course, the cost of attendance has soared since 1976, so colleges and universities bear some of the responsibility for this shift.

The impact of the one-size-fits-all financial critique of liberal arts degrees is clear. Depending on what one includes under the rubric of humanities, the number of graduates has fallen by 16 percent to 29 percent since 2012, with just one in 10 college students earning a humanities degree in 2020. In fields such as history, art, philosophy and foreign languages, the number of majors has dropped by 50 percent since the early 2000s.

In the past, the number of students majoring in humanities and arts disciplines tended to ebb and flow with the economy, declining during hard times and rebounding in a growing economy. Recent years, however, have seen a consistent shift away from the humanities and arts and toward fields like engineering, health care, and business.

“Follow the money” may be sound advice when pursuing political corruption, but if taken as a guide to higher education, we will all be the poorer for it.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.”

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