How Do You Value a College Degree?

Writing in the Washington Post recently, Nick Anderson noted that " . . . a great number of students and parents want to know their financial bottom line before they commit to enrolling in a college that could cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a four-year degree." He noted that the federal government attempts to address this issue through publication of the College Scorecard and that several states are also publishing information about the labor market.

To investigate this question, Mr. Anderson turned to Mark Schneider, a vice president and institute fellow at the American Institutes for Research, and former U.S Commissioner of Education Statistics. Mr. Schneider's findings are informative if not especially surprising.

He found that the federal government's College Scorecard wage data presents only a single number for a college or university. In some respects, state reporting is more sophisticated. Students in Virginia, for example, can compare sociology programs across the state, by program within a university, and by level of degree. They do so by reviewing findings that match unemployment insurance wage data with where students studied and where they graduated.

Mr. Schneider's findings include:

  • What a student studies is important

  • Graduate degrees pay more than bachelor's degrees, but the field matters
  • Early childhood education pays especially poorly
  • Many graduates of the largest programs of study, especially in the arts, earn low wages that can persist throughout their career
  • Among STEM graduates, technology, engineering and math majors fare well but science majors earn only about the median for a bachelor's degree, and
  • Graduates in health related programs do well.
  • He concludes: "The rule of thumb is that students who know how to fix things or know how to help people stay healthy earn higher wages."

    There are few surprises in Mr. Schneider's findings. Indeed, most Americans likely have a clear sense of what a teacher's salary pays versus that of an engineer with a graduate degree. It may be more interesting that science majors do not command the salaries of math majors or that health related majors are paid as well as they often are.

    The real story is the chasm between what society values and what society needs. It extends deeper than the important discussions that continuously occur about the value of a liberal arts education. The story behind Mr. Schneider's research is about how outcomes driven by a market economy can be different than the outcomes necessary to sustain a vibrant national culture and a dynamic and sustainable society.

    In this sense, the chasm reflects a failure to shape a progressive higher education policy. It encourages the throw away asides about flipping hamburgers at fast food restaurants. Even worse it promotes policies sometimes that prejudice engineers over English teachers. When the market determines solely what society supports based upon "hot" markets to spur the economic growth of a region, its supporters miss an important question.

    What makes a society sustainable?

    That's not to say that engineers should not be paid well. Or, for that matter, that everyone needs a college degree to find a good job. But society must also ultimately value what a good teacher can do for future engineers before they earn what the market will support.

    In the early 1960s, my father took nearly a 50 percent pay cut to leave the postal service to become a high school history teacher. His students, neighbors, co-workers and so many others - rich and poor - knew what my father did for them. They knew the value of good teaching writ large.

    Does society value and reward these skills? Does it matter if the labor force requires a well-balanced group of workers across diverse fields because its foundation mandates that these skill sets be knit comprehensively together?

    Is it possible to imagine a market-driven economy that rewards specific technical skills but also protects those who create a different kind of value for society?

    It is important to know how to fix things and help people stay healthy. But it may be time for politicians and pundits to temper their language that trumpets market-driven careers. It may also be an opportunity for them to question their own values to be certain that what they value is what the workforce and society as a whole need.

    The key is to understand that not every region needs to become Austin or Boston to succeed. But America will certainly prosper when an appreciation of the workforce includes a better understanding of how to value what makes prosperity dynamic.

    In the end, it's as much a cultural as an economic question.