Every so often, a Facebook friend posts an article about colleges that aren’t “worth” the investment of tuition. Usually, these lists are compiled by magazines or pundits out to prove a point, and I just grit my teeth and scroll on.
But recently, the usually responsible Brookings Institution got into the act. An article titled “More data can make college less risky” began with the assertion that the “vast majority” of students go to college because they believe that it will improve their “employment opportunities and financial wellbeing.” The authors recommended that students do what other “investors” do—research their prospective investments.
And what sort of “research” did they suggest?
For decades, economists discussed the average benefits of a college education compared to a high school education with no regard to either field of study or institution. Finally, in 2009, the Census Bureau started collecting data that could be used to assess which majors pay the most,[iii] and then just a few months ago, the Department of Education released data on the earnings of alumni by institution, for all students who receive federal grants or loans. These data can be further analyzed, as we have done, to estimate the economic contribution of schools (or value-added) as distinct from the outcomes attributable to student characteristics (like test scores).
This approach is perfectly fine, if one plans on attending a vocational school.
The assumption that college is a place you go to get job training (and if you can afford it, a social life on a pretty campus) explains so much of what is wrong not just with higher education, but with American institutions in general.
Let me be very clear: there is nothing wrong with job training. There is nothing wrong with colleges helping students acquire marketable skills. But that is not their mission. Their mission is education.
We live in an age where a candidate for President feels free to sneer at philosophers because they make less than plumbers. (Actually, Mr. Rubio, they don’t, but that’s beside the point.) We live in an age where politicians and pundits can and do make ridiculous, factually inaccurate statements secure in the knowledge that only a few “pointy-headed intellectuals” (i.e., people who read and think) will notice or care, an age where ideologues can distort history with impunity because no one has studied it, and cite the Constitution for propositions that would make the Founders turn over in their graves, because their only acquaintance with it is a vague memory of a week in high school government class.
Only in a country that has lost respect for the life of the mind and for intellectual integrity would the Senate vote to deny man’s contribution to climate change. (Perhaps they can vote on the value of Pi next. The Indiana legislature once did that. Or on whether the earth orbits the sun.)
In saner times, we valued knowledge of the arts, literature and philosophy, knowledge of other cultures, science. We valued knowledge for its own sake—and we studied the world in order to understand it, not just in order to make money.
A college that turns out excellent philosophers, artists, musicians, anthropologists and public administrators is probably not going to have alumni earning the highest median wages. That tells prospective students absolutely nothing about the quality of the institution.
I agree that prospective students should research colleges, but not to determine how much their graduates earn.
Here are some questions students should ask: How good are the professors? How selective is the admissions process and how diverse the student body—will you be studying with people whose conversations will enrich your own understanding and broaden your horizons? How large are the classes? Will you be able to interact with your professors, or will you be in oversized lecture halls tended largely by TAs? Will you emerge with a better understanding of the world you inhabit, and an enhanced ability to be a contributing and thoughtful citizen?
I’ve said it before: If your only concern is job training, go to trade school.