Is the objective of a university education to prepare graduates to find employment? I never thought about it. But then again, I never thought that going to college should be a near universal experience.
When universities were first established, their purpose was to train members of the clergy, lawyers and doctors. Fortunately, higher education no longer has such a narrow focus. Still, I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that college campuses should be places to pursue rigorous education, to develop leaders, and to pursue the life of the spirit. Embrace learning for the sake of learning, regardless of career application.
This is not how most students see it, of course, so realism is required. If higher education was primarily about ‘the life of the spirit’ it would be a much smaller sector and paid for largely by participating families and voluntary donors, not taxpayers. Instead, colleges and universities have grown into huge businesses providing skills training as well as other services such as entertainment, economic development, and medical care.
Is college “worth it” for those looking to increase their income throughout their life? On average, yes – but beware of the fallacy of the average. Saying that the average graduate earns 67% more than the average worker with only a high school diploma doesn’t mean that going to college will increase your earnings by 67%.
For many young people, the very knowledge, skills and abilities that help them get into college would help them get better paying jobs even if they did not go to college. Moreover, just because former college graduates have increased their incomes – especially by beating their undergraduate tickets on the path to lucrative professions requiring MBAs, MDs, or JDs – doesn’t mean that a marginal student today, considering continuing a four-year study or another path after high school, would experience an equivalent gain.
The most important point of all, however, is that no one really gets a generic “college 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 certainly not created equal.
That’s the message reinforced by a fascinating new study by Preston Cooper, a researcher at the Equal Opportunities Research Foundation. Combine statistics from a new federal site (CollegeScorecard.ed.gov) with other data, Cooper built a model to measure the return on investment (ROI) that students can expect to receive by earning undergraduate degrees at any of the 1,200 institutions in his database .
By return on investment, Cooper refers to the present value of your lifetime earnings minus the earnings you would likely have earned without the degree minus the cost to you of obtaining the degree. Are some of these values only rough estimates? Sure. This is even 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. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from North Carolina State University will, on average, increase your net income by $ 1.13 million. The earning of a fire protection degree from UNC-Charlotte is $ 1.12 million. A degree in economics from Duke University generates an impressive return on investment of $ 2.7 million.
On the flip side, Cooper found that a Duke chemistry degree resulted in a net loss of $ 50,000. A psychology degree from High Point University has a negative return on investment of $ 79,000. East Carolina University’s dance (- $ 268,000) and theater (- $ 332,000) degrees produce increasingly large losses when comparing costs and gains.
This is not an argument against the performing arts, or for anyone trying to specialize in STEM fields. I happen to know people with degrees in dance and drama who lead happy and fulfilling lives. And I know engineers who are really bored.
When it comes to college costs and benefits, however, honesty is the best policy. We must help our young people to make informed choices among a wide range of alternative pathways after high school.
John Hood is a member of the board of trustees of the John Locke Foundation and author.