Is the purpose of a university education to prepare graduates to get jobs? I’ve never thought so. But then again, I’ve never thought that going to college should be a near-universal experience.
When universities were first created, their purpose was to educate clergymen, lawyers, and physicians. Thankfully, higher education no longer has such a narrow focus. Still, I am sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that university campuses should be places to pursue rigorous scholarship, to cultivate leaders, and to pursue the life of the mind. To embrace learning for learning’s sake, regardless of any career applications.
That’s not how most students see it, of course, so realism is required. If higher education was primarily about “the life of the mind,” it would be a far smaller sector, and one paid for overwhelmingly by participating families and willing donors, not taxpayers. Instead, colleges and universities have become massive enterprises delivering vocational training along with other services such as entertainment, economic development, and medical care.
Is college “worth it” for those seeking to boost their lifelong earnings? On average, yes — but beware of the fallacy of the average. To say the average college graduate earns 67% more than the average worker with only a high-school diploma is not to say that going to college will boost your income by 67%.
For many young people, the very knowledge, skills, and abilities that help get them into college would help them get better-paying jobs even if they didn’t go to college. Moreover, just because past college graduates may have boosted their incomes — especially by punching their undergraduate tickets on the way to lucrative professions requiring MBAs, MDs, or JDs — doesn’t mean that a marginal student today, considering whether to pursue a four-year degree or some other path after high school, would experience an equivalent gain.
The most important point of all, though, is that no one really gets a generic “university degree.” You get a degree in a particular discipline from a particular institution. When it comes to post-graduation salaries, all campuses and majors are most certainly not created equal.
That’s the message reinforced by a fascinating new study by Preston Cooper, a research fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. Combining statistics from a new federal site (CollegeScorecard.ed.gov) with other data, Cooper constructed a model to measure the return on investment (ROI) that students can expect to receive by earning undergraduate degrees from one of the 1,200 institutions in his database.
By ROI, Cooper means the present value of your lifetime earnings minus the earnings you’d likely have earned without the degree minus the cost to you of obtaining the degree. Are some of these values only rough estimates? Of course. That’s still better than excluding them from the analysis.
There are dozens of North Carolina colleges and universities in Cooper’s searchable database, so I’ll provide a few local examples to illustrate the wide range of results. Getting a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from North Carolina State University will, on average, boost your lifetime earnings by a net of $1.13 million. The payoff from a degree in fire protection from UNC-Charlotte is $1.12 million. An economics degree from Duke University generates an eyepopping $2.7 million ROI.
On the other hand, Cooper found that a Duke chemistry degree results in a net loss of $50,000. A psychology degree from High Point University has a negative ROI of $79,000. Dance (-$268,000) and drama (-$332,000) degrees from East Carolina University produce ever-larger losses when comparing costs and payoffs.
This is not an argument against the performing arts, or for everyone trying to major in STEM fields. I happen to know folks with dance and drama degrees who live happy and fulfilling lives. And I know some really bored engineers.
When it comes to college costs and benefits, though, honesty is the best policy. We should help our young people make fully informed choices among a wide spectrum of alternative paths after high school.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).