Since the beginning of the Great Recession, I’ve noticed a lot more handwringing about the costs of college and whether college is “worth it” anymore. The big NYT piece a couple weeks ago highlighted a woman who has $100,000 in debt from her four-year degree at NYU, which she can’t pay because she doesn’t make enough money. But why doesn’t she make enough money? She got a liberal arts degree!
She recently received a raise and now makes $22 an hour working for a photographer. It’s the highest salary she’s earned since graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies. (emphasis added)
And so we get damning articles about how she should have known better and other should “learn from her mistake.” And moreso, that the high cost of higher education model is on the way out the door. I’m not here to defend the cost of a liberal arts degree, per se, but I think it’s interesting to think about the implicit argument on the other side, which I’ll call “University as Technical College.” That is, are we demanding that everyone who goes to college gets a “practical degree” with “real-world applicability and immediate job prospects” (potentially also a haircut and jeans without holes in the knees)?
Prosperity Partnership talks all the time about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees, for that very reason: because the jobs in our economy require those degrees and we want the people educated here to be able to get the good (and well-paying) jobs. In fact, we have our famous pie chart that shows how our state’s colleges and universities are overproducing other degrees, and we’d like that balance to shift. So are we joining that chorus of encouraging people away from Russian & Women’s Studies? Or are we saying that you can get those degrees only at a low-cost public institution with in-state tuition? Or maybe only if you’re wealthy enough to not have to take out loans? At the very least, do we want the student loan agencies to determine your maximum borrowing amount based on your proposed major? (Which reminds me of the scene in LA Story at the restaurant where the chef says “You think with a financial statement like this, you can have the duck!?!”)
“Defenders of the Liberal Arts” ™ would obviously make the argument that the point of those degrees is not necessarily the content of the major; clearly, a lot of Russian majors aren’t Russian translators when they grow up and not all Women’s Studies majors end up being…um…women studiers. The idea is that liberal arts provide you with the ability to learn, think, analyze and engage with the world in a thoughtful way, which you then translate into some career of your choosing. Oftentimes, that career choice requires further study, such as the staff member of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development who majored in Russian but then went on to get an MBA. There was a time in our country’s history where a high school degree was enough to get a job, and college was just for the highly educated; the new normal is that college is the baseline and graduate studies are the differentiation. Is that good or bad?
The basic principle of economics is that people need to be rational actors, making smart decisions based on a thorough cost-benefit analysis. Clearly, this doesn’t always happen, particularly by 18-year old students (if we did, I’d still have the bottom of my front tooth). And when there is a significant distance between rational action and what most people are doing, there’s often a role for public policy to intervene. The question, though, is “what is the proper intervention?” And I’m pretty sure it’s neither banning liberal arts degrees nor only allowing people from specific socio-economic situations to pursue them. Rather, I think that, when you have an “information problem” (as we call it in the biz), you respond with a more clear and effective distribution of information. Especially in this information-access rich time, the ability to communicate with large numbers of people (particuarly young people) in a cheap and effective way is high. And so messaging the link between education and career opportunities is both important and doable. In fact, it’s the third bullet of our higher ed proposal. As we start to update the Regional Economic Strategy for the next five years, I have a feeling that this linkage is going to be a high priority moving forward.