What is an education worth? A new bill being put forward in Congress by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) might suggest that it’s related to what you make after it’s finished. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would require states to publish data on salaries of college graduates based on undergraduate institution and major, has raised red flags around the higher education community regarding this implicit suggestion that students should base their education off of earning potential. However, the Act has the potential to help students make informed decisions about their futures, provided they understand just what information earning figures can show.
Anything implying a link between the quality of an education and a student’s salary post-graduation must be approached with caution. Education is about far more than enabling students to earn income. Still, some career fields will always be more lucrative, and sticking this fact point-blank in students’ faces may encourage more of a drift away from those majors which lead to lower-paying jobs.
To some extent, this is already occurring: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a full 21.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2010 were in business, a major that almost has “money” in its name. This was an increase from 2005, but every other major area aside from computer and information sciences saw an increase as well. Moreover, engineering degrees, which lead to some of the highest salaries, saw one of the slowest rates of increase. If the notion that students pursue majors based on what they’re likely to make later in life holds, it does not seem to hold strongly.
Critics of the bill also turn to the old “living in a box” argument: English and art history majors will likely never make as much as engineering and biochemistry majors, and emphasizing this might discourage students from majoring in the liberal arts. Yet no English major chooses his or her degree path expecting to become a millionaire, and saying otherwise implies a certain naïveté on the part of students who choose to pursue these less lucrative majors because they are passionate about these subjects. Furthermore, initial data from a Virginia state project similar to the Right to Know Act indicates some surprising results: history majors, on average, earn $5,000 more 18 months after graduation than biology majors. International relations majors earn $2,000 more than psychology majors. This data must be taken with a grain of salt, however, as it does not include federal government or military employees or graduates who were not living in Virginia, nor did it adjust for cost of living in various areas of the state.
And that, ultimately, is the bottom line: data is useful, but it must be viewed in the context of what it can convey. Databases created under the Right to Know Act would allow students to gain realistic expectations of what they might earn after graduation, and having this information would be useful for planning out how much debt they could take on (and, on the other side of the coin, helping colleges know how much financial aid they need to provide).
But data is not destiny. An ambitious sociology major will likely have more success than a bioinformatics major who just goes through the motions to earn a degree. Additionally, two students with different financial backgrounds will face different obligations after graduation vis-à-vis student loan payments, which will have a dramatic impact on their real (as opposed to their nominal) salaries. And, of course, there is a substantial amount of luck involved in any job search. An average salary figure is just that: an average. Like most statistics associated with higher education, it cannot predict the future of any single individual.
The importance of this bill is captured in its title: students have a right to be informed before making their college and major decisions, and we applaud this step forward in transparency in higher education, especially as the cost of college is on the rise and financial aid rates are not always rising commensurately. Still, policymakers and students alike must acknowledge the Act as simply a tool, not a crystal ball or a magnet pulling students away from the liberal arts.