President Biden’s recent student loan forgiveness program has sparked heated debate, based largely on the assumption that Americans should judge a student’s college degree and major by one criterion: how much money will the graduate earn and what will be the return on investment?
In a typical review, Allysia Finley, of the wall street journal editorial board, concludes that Biden’s plan will support a “bureaucratic-educational complex [that] has produced too many young people with too much debt and too few skills that employers want. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) is even more blunt, denouncing Biden’s plan to subsidize degrees in what he deems unnecessary, such as gender and “zombie studies”.
This narrow focus on the economic value of majors and degrees goes back many years. In 2014, for example, President Obama said that “people can earn a lot more, potentially, with manufacturing or skilled trades than with an art history degree.”
Although Obama later apologized to art history students, his comments reflect what has become a self-perpetuating paradigm that dominates public perception of the purpose and value of higher education. . Again and again and again, officials, commentators and the media focus on return on investment (ROI), narrowly defined, in discussions of whether college is worth it and urge students to pursue studies in business, computer science and STEM.
Students with a humanities and arts degree earn on average less than those with a STEM or business degree. They are also more likely to regret their choice of major and not find more meaning in their work, perceptions no doubt shaped in part by current misconceptions. But today’s emphasis on the financial rewards of different tracks masks wide variations in outcomes and wrongly values higher education solely for its contribution to career earnings.
While a typical history or journalism major can expect lifetime earnings of $3.4 million compared to the $4.6 million that a typical economics or chemistry major might anticipate,” many of the highest-paying humanities majors earn more than the lowest-paying STEM majors.” Also, where you study can be as important as what you study. ROI in liberal arts schools “comparable to ROI in four-year engineering and technology schools and business and management schools.”
And for most people, enough is as good as a feast. College graduates, regardless of major, earn more on average, live longer, pay more taxes, give more to charity, use less government assistance, and contribute more to their communities than those who don’t have a degree. It’s no surprise, then, that nearly 90% of humanities degree graduates report being satisfied with their lives, a percentage that puts them nearly on par with STEM and business majors.
Regardless, students tend to do better in the subjects that interest them, both in school and afterwards. So even if the only measure is lifetime income, it doesn’t make sense to tell people whose interests, abilities, and high school readiness predispose them to majoring in the arts or humanities to go on to college. engineering or computer science.
And, unlike criticism of the humanities and arts, which, it should be noted, is often grounded in partisan politics, few, if any, make obnoxious comparisons between computer science or engineering majors and business or biology simply because starting salaries are on average much higher for the former than for the latter.
More importantly, an exclusive focus on monetary rewards ignores the larger purpose and nonmonetary benefits of higher education. A good liberal arts education inspires lifelong interests and encourages critical thinking, aesthetic appreciation, and intellectual curiosity. It helps people learn to work with others, appreciate different perspectives, and fully engage in their communities. It can lead to “better decisions about health, marriage, and parenting” and make people “more patient, more goal-oriented, and less likely to engage in risky behaviors.” A liberal arts education can also strengthen civic literacy, improve text analysis and oral and written communication skills, and foster knowledge of foreign languages and cultures.
Additionally, society needs graduates educated in the humanities and arts as well as STEM and business. We would have far fewer teachers, artists, social workers, journalists, and other valuable yet undervalued professionals if students only pursued studies in the highest-paying fields.
Students were not always so concerned about the economic return on their investment. In 1976, just under half of college freshmen cited earning more money as “a very important reason for going to college.” By 2019, that number had risen to 73%, and it’s likely increased since. Of course, the cost of attendance has skyrocketed since 1976, so colleges and universities bear some of the blame for that change.
The impact of the unique financial critique of liberal arts degrees is clear. Depending on what is included under the heading of humanities, the number of graduates has fallen by 16% to 29% since 2012, with only one in 10 students graduating in the humanities in 2020. In fields such as history, art, philosophy and foreign languages, the number of majors has dropped by 50% since the early 2000s.
In the past, the number of students majoring in humanities and arts disciplines tended to fluctuate with the economy, declining during tough times and bouncing back in a growing economy. Recent years, however, have seen a steady shift from the humanities and arts to fields like engineering, healthcare, and business.
“Follow the money” may be good advice when pursuing political corruption, but if taken as a guide for higher education, we will all be poorer for it.
David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.”