Measuring the Worth of a College Major

Recently, politicians from various states, including Wisconsin, have suggested that college students be advised to pursue majors with the highest earning power upon graduation.  Florida’s Governor has even suggested that certain majors be funded at lower levels than others, based on their immediate demand.

There are several problems with this line of reasoning.  

First, it’s based on an assumption that graduates must take jobs directly related to their major.  In reality, many majors result in careers not obviously recognized as part of that particular field of study. The relationship between an engineering graduate working for an engineering firm is better understood, for example, than that of an anthropology major working for a software company.  In fact, Microsoft is now one of the top employers of anthropology majors in the world.  

Why is this?  

Anthropology majors are trained in critical thinking, and they possess unique skills for understanding human behavior and working with diverse populations.  These traits are understandably attractive to many local, regional, and even global corporations.   Similarly, there are career opportunities for humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and fine arts graduates in areas where there is not an obvious connection.  All of these majors possess skill sets that employers want and that society needs.

Second, it’s difficult to predict long-term job demand, which often fluctuates based on current economic conditions.  Over the course of my own working life, careers have emerged that weren’t even conceivable 20 years ago.  In addition, today’s college graduates are much more likely to change employers and jobs, so they need skills that will allow them to be adaptable.  It is for this very reason that a liberal arts education is both valuable and marketable.

Third, colleges and universities are more than just job trainers.  They are generators of curiosity, creativity, and exploration.  The strength of American higher education is the liberal arts foundation that exposes students to diverse disciplines and helps them develop into engaged, adaptable citizens.  We need to retain programs that foster such interdisciplinary connections and thinking.

Fourth, measuring income levels immediately after graduation is not necessarily a predictor of lifetime earnings.  In many cases, earning power increases dramatically over a lifetime.  In my first job as a political science graduate, I started out at minimum wage.  Twenty-two years and two degrees in anthropology later, my earning power has increased dramatically.  None of that would have been possible without my undergraduate degree. 

At both the state and national levels, we must continue to invest in an educational system that includes diverse fields of study. It is this diversity that separates us from much of the rest of the world.  While students should be informed about career opportunities, they should not be steered on an educational path based solely upon earning power that is measured immediately upon their graduation.  

In the end, we must advise students to study what they are passionate about.  It’s what fuels our economy, our society, and the realization of the American Dream.

Thomas Pleger is Campus Executive Officer and Dean at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County. 

Publication: 
Baraboo News Republic
Publication Date: 
Thursday, May 30, 2013