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October 22, 2012 / Jake Seliger

The problem with justifying college involves cost

In “Telling the Right Story,” Dean Dad notes that higher education has had a series of real or perceived crises, around hippies / protests, diversity / multiculturalism, and, as he says, the latest set are “about cost.” Though I would say they’re about cost and value, the basic point remains: skepticism regarding the utility of conventional colleges and universities is growing, as is skepticism about the idea that the “lifetime payoff” of college always justifies its costs for all people. Dean Dad ends his post by saying, “have you seen or heard a better story for demonstrating the value of public higher ed to the public?”

To me, the problem is simple: “the value of public higher ed” increasingly depends on the major that one picks and the amount of work that one does in college. Payscale.com’s salary data shows data for a bunch of majors, with things like art and social work clustered at the bottom while engineering and applied math at the top. (I find the relatively low salaries of business majors interesting.) Someone who majors in petroleum engineering (starting pay: $98,000; mid-career in the mid six figures) is basically living in a different world than someone majoring in sports management ($35,300 and $57,600, respectively). Lumping both into “college” makes only slightly more sense than lumping McDonald’s and dung beetles into the general category of “food” just because both happen to be edible.

As Megan McArdle wrote, “It’s very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in.” People who aren’t developing important skills should be asking what they are doing; by now, it’s pretty clear that a lot of majors don’t require much effort. Colleges are happy to offer some majors that require learning and some that don’t. This isn’t purely anecdotal: as Academically Adrift demonstrates, a lot of students simply aren’t learning that much in many majors. In chemical engineering and computer science, students are presumably learning the kinds of skills they need to get paid a lot of money. Alternately, those majors weed out students who can’t or won’t learn the material.

If they students get out of college and end up in jobs that don’t require a college degree, then perhaps they shouldn’t have gone to college in the first place. Universal college isn’t a panacea, especially for people who enter without the skills, motivation, or inclination to succeed. Plus, not everyone does well sitting in a classroom and manipulating abstract symbols. Which is okay. But we’re pretending that everyone should sit quietly in classrooms and manipulate abstract symbols, and we’re subsidizing them through student loans to let them do so, and then we’re surprised when not everyone fits this profile.*

To be sure, there is more to life than money, but again, Academically Adrift shows that a lot of students don’t appear to be learning anything measurable. Maybe they’re growing as people. But $50,000 – $250,000 is an onerous payment for that growth, especially when the debt incurred for the growth can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

To return to Dean Dad’s point, I don’t think he or anyone else will hear “a better story” than the one we have now (“We’ve used the ‘lifetime payoff’ argument for a long time, generally to good effect. But that argument gets less convincing when the cost to the student goes up and entry-level opportunities go down”) until we, collectively, acknowledge reality and look much more closely at how lifetime income varies by major.

Clever stories can’t hide hard truths.

I’ve written about this set of issues before. I’m sure I’ll write about them again.


* Arguably the worst-off students are the ones who attend for two or more years, incur the debt, and then don’t graduate. They don’t even have the piece of paper at the end.

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