During the Republican and Democratic conventions, The Hechinger Report will publish a new story each day, examining what the party proposals might mean for the future of education. Our staff reporters will provide education coverage from Cleveland and Philadelphia.
KENT, Ohio — Kambiz Ghazinour would love to persuade more of his Kent State University computer science students to go on to graduate school, but they’re so in demand that most of them head straight into the job market.
“As soon as possible, they join the workforce and pay back their student loans, and I don’t blame them,” said Ghazinour, an assistant professor who teaches data privacy and related topics on this campus less than 40 miles from where the Republicans will hold their national convention this month.
The fact that computer science grads are more likely to have jobs waiting could give them advantages over their classmates if presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump is elected president.
Echoing bipartisan calls for stricter accountability at colleges whose graduates are not always prepared for the working world, the Trump campaign has proposed tying student loan decisions to borrowers’ job prospects — an assessment that likely would be based on a student’s major.
Private banks and colleges would make those decisions together, Sam Clovis, a co-chair of Trump’s campaign and an economics professor at Iowa’s Morningside College, said in an interview.
Computer scientists probably would have little trouble borrowing money, but French majors might encounter challenges. Banks would be free to tailor loans based on students’ career paths, Clovis said. He emphasized that the main idea is to give borrowers better information about whether they’ll be able to pay back their loans.
“You need to have a very clear picture of the actuaries in your field,” Clovis said of students. “If they choose to borrow the money, they have to pay it back. It’s that simple.”
The idea comes as Congress, the White House and others try to prod colleges into being more transparent about graduates’ job prospects.
In some ways, Trump’s proposal is “a centrist Republican and Democratic position,” said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University economics professor and director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
“If you ask the public what’s most important in higher education, they say two things: ‘What does it cost?’ and ‘Will my kid get a job?’ ”
And while the unemployment rate for all new bachelor’s degree recipients dropped from 7.1 percent in March 2011 to 4.2 percent in March 2016, for new arts, law and public policy graduates it was 8.5 percent, according to Carnevale and fellow Georgetown researcher Ban Cheah. Meanwhile, the jobless rate for recent graduates in health fields dropped to 4.6 percent. The figures are from 2014, the most recent available.
That last number bodes well for 18-year-old Rachel Dalton, an incoming nursing student at Kent State. But while Trump’s plan would make it easy for Dalton to borrow money, she said her artist friends shouldn’t suffer just because they’re following their dreams.
If you ask the public what’s most important in higher education, they say two things: ‘What does it cost?’ and ‘Will my kid get a job?’
“To me, college is all about becoming an adult,” Dalton said outside a Kent State dining hall as she took a break from summer freshman orientation on the Ohio campus. “There’s a lot more than just getting an education. If people want to do astrophysics or fashion, they should do what they want.”
Some advocates for the liberal arts agree that connecting employment and financial aid would unfairly target the humanities, in which graduates’ unemployment numbers tend to be higher and income lower than those of their peers immediately after graduation.
But while a history major might have trouble finding a job right out of school, these advocates say, his or her degree may end up paying off years later.
By the time they’re at the peak of their careers, in their mid-50s, people who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn about $2,000 a year more than their classmates who majored in professional or pre-professional fields, a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found. About 40 percent of humanities undergrads go on to get advanced degrees, the report said, further boosting their incomes.
“You really don’t know the value of your degree until 20 to 30 years out,” said Kent State Provost Todd Diacon, noting that his Latin American history degree did not bring in a sizable salary until he became a university administrator. “I’m skeptical of our ability to predict. I try not to pick winners.”
At Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, history associate professor Gillian Weiss routinely invites physicians, CEOs and lawyers who majored in the humanities to visit with current students who she said need to see that a humanities degree opens doors to just about any field.
“Part of the purpose of a liberal arts education is to learn to think about the world,” Weiss said, calling the Trump employment-based financial aid proposal “incredibly short-sighted.” Many lower-income students already feel pressure to go into fields with high employment, she said, even though they might want to study history or literature. “There’s already a class differential in who feels the luxury to study what they want to study.”
Case Western chemistry professor Alfred Anderson was even more blunt in his disdain for the idea: “I think people should do what they want. It’s a free country.”
Just a few blocks from where Republicans will gather to choose a candidate, Cleveland State University has embraced its role in the Ohio economy as the trainer of a skilled workforce by focusing on health fields and other disciplines with high employment demand. The school recently axed low-enrollment departments such as geology in favor of programs like criminal justice, President Ronald Berkman said.
But while Berkman said he sees merit in another Trump proposal to return student lending to private banks rather than leaving it to the federal government, he said he worries about the consequences of going so far as to tie those loans to students’ majors.
“No student who is qualified to go to a university should be denied a chance to attend on the basis that they can’t afford to pay,” he said in his office on the urban campus. “Personally, I wouldn’t want my kid, because they’re a history major, to have less opportunity than other students.”
Scores of educators, experts and politicians have argued that colleges at least need to do a better job of telling potential students about the likely payoffs of their degrees. If a student and their family are paying tens of thousands of dollars per year to study anthropology, they should have some idea about the job prospects.
That information just isn’t available at most schools, said Mamie Voight, director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington. But it should be, she said.
“It’s important to improve the data we have available for students to know the return on investment so they can make better decisions,” she said. “It’s important for students to go in with their eyes open.”
Majors without apparent career payoffs have been a particular target of some Republicans. The Republican governors of Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Kentucky have publicly questioned whether taxpayers should subsidize humanities disciplines. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, during his own campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, said there was a greater need for welders than philosophers.
On Ohio campuses as the convention neared, few students seemed worried about their post-graduation outlooks.
Case Western Reserve senior Evangelina Din, 21, is majoring in cognitive science and psychology with a pre-med focus. Although she’s long wanted to be a doctor, she said she’s not stressing out about jobs.
“I’m not worried at all,” she said during a break in a quiet campus lounge. “If medical school doesn’t work out, I know I have other options.”
Across town at Cleveland State, 22-year-old senior Shane Shertzer said he became an accounting major mostly because of the job possibilities.
“It definitely played a big part,” he said on a campus that had largely cleared out for summer break. “Everybody talked about how accountants make big money.”