Our College Problem: Payscale, Return on Investment, the Arts and Humanities and College Graduate Overproduction
by New Dealer
Payscale.com recently released their annual report on which American universities and/or majors have the best Return on Investment. The answers for universities are largely not surprising. The top ten colleges and universities are either members of the Ivy League or elite engineering schools. The only non-Ivy and non-engineering school in the Top is Boston’s Babson College which has an exclusive focus on business. The entire list can be found here. The list is not complete; my alma mater and many other small liberal arts colleges are not listed.
The Atlantic also did some data crunching to find the schools and majors with the lowest return on investment. The results again are not surprising by being filled largely with colleges and universities with little name-recognition and your usual suspects of majors in the arts, humanities, education, and social work/criminal justice. Many of these programs featured negative returns on investment.
Payscale’s data is self-reported and not perfect but it is a good jumping off point for several conversations that we have had over education and whether too many students attend college during the last year and before.
I. The Point and Purpose of a University Education
The United States cannot seem to make up its mind about what is the point and purpose of a university education. Is it to prepare people for the job force and increase access to the middle class and upper-middle class? Or is the purpose of a university education to create a citizenry with a diverse set of knowledge, interests, and critical reading, writing, and thinking abilities?
The answer is that there are probably a good deal of Americans who believe the answer is the first option, the second option, both options, and none of the above. It is probably impossible to come up with a unified solution.
What is possible but probably hard is more respect and understanding is that we need all types. Whenever articles like this come up, they are usually accompanied by lot of bickering and sneering on all sides.
I would guess that most people who major in the arts know that the path for a career is hard and they will probably not see much financial success unless they stop or are really lucky. I would also imagine that many people who major in social work, education, theology, and other subjects have a higher calling than financial gain.
Art and design is all around us. We all watch or use some form or forms of performing art from video games to tv to movies to theatre. Most people who work on these productions are trained artists and this includes in front and behind the camera. There are comic book writers who went to the Yale School of Drama.
Design is also all around us and in our everyday lives to make things more aesthetic and pleasant and all these people went to design and art school as well.
We can ask a million times whether Meryl Streep would have been Meryl Streep without the Yale School of Drama but it doesn’t matter because she attended and graduated from the Yale School of Drama. You don’t need a college degree to become a successful actor but you probably need training and actors will continue their training via classes, seminars, sessions, that are offered all over major cities but especially New York and Los Angeles and probably other major cities.
II. Are Too Many People Going to College?
I admit to having a very biased heart towards the liberal arts and humanities and a romantic soft-spot notion for the idea of a mass educated class. That being said, college and universities are very expensive and tuition doesn’t want to seem to do anything but go up and up and this trend shows no signs of stopping.
The questions then are: 1. Are too many people going to college; and 2, Are there cheaper and more affordable ways to train would be artists, writers, designers, social workers, and teachers.
I like the idea of keeping artists in the college and university setting because my idea arts training programs involve a good dose of education in the humanities and sciences. Better artists have a good knowledge of the world including history, politics, philosophy, literature, math, science, and sociology. This training will ideally make the artist more curious about their world and want to learn all they can instead of focusing on a very narrow craft.
But this is not my biggest problems in thinking that too many people are going to college. My biggest fear is that reducing the number of college students will mainly come from the working-class and first-generation college students. It will not be an equitable reduction but one based primarily on socio-economic class rather than academic merit.
Paying for the Party is a 2013 book by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. The two sociologist follow several young women from their freshman year. The young women live in a party dorm at a large, public Midwestern university that turns out to be Indiana University. The results are predictably depressing. The young women from affluent backgrounds were told to reside in the party dorm by older siblings or cousins and told they could transfer out if they found it to be too much. These well-to-do women tended were able to get jobs despite their GPAs because of friends and family connections. Women from working class backgrounds did not know how to navigate any aspect of college life and ended up struggling to complete their degrees or unable to land jobs because of the lack of connections. The working class women who picked harder majors like biology often graduated with low G.P.A.s that excluded then from medical or dentistry school.
My fear and worry about a reintroduction of tracking is that we will see a reintroduction of the Gentleman’s C. College and university will become a place for the rich to party for four years with a smaller contingent who engage in serious academics. Bright people from working-class backgrounds will find it much harder to gain admission and face teachers and counselors who would gently admonish that “college is not for people like you.” Maybe the admonishments would not be so gentle. This is my same concern about switching law back to an apprenticeship system where people read law as clerks for a local lawyer and then took the bar exam. Will it save money? Yes? Will it reduce the number of people from working class backgrounds who become lawyers? Also probably yes. Law would become even more of a family profession where people got jobs via connections.
Research seems to indicate that the best thing parents can do for their children is place them in an interesting environment. Parents who went to college tend to raise their kids in environments where people have interesting careers and really loved their college educations. This seems to just make the kid understand that education is important and can lead to an interesting life.
I am not opposed to the idea of lowering the number of people who go to college or finding alternative ways of educating artists, designers, teachers, social workers, and maybe even lawyers. I am opposed to doing so in ways that allow rich students to party hard for four years and then land jobs they would have gotten anyway because of family connections. I am opposed to allowing athletes at Division I universities get an A- on essays that are a paragraph long. While bright working-class kids are stuck in low-paying service jobs because their parents had low-paying service jobs.