WASHINGTON — On a recent episode of NBC's prime-time drama "Parenthood," Drew, the lovable grandson in need of a haircut, struggled with an age-old decision: declaring a major. Coming from a low-income, single-parent household, he felt obligated to choose a practical course of study — economics — that would guarantee him a paycheck. Forget his passion for the arts. He, like so many students, had the bug placed in his ear that college is strictly a means to an end.
Of course, getting a job is critical, especially in the era of five-figure student loan debt. There are tons of kids just like Drew, for whom a solid job after graduation is key to financial security for them and their families. And the government, perhaps in recognition of this reality, has called on colleges to do more to prepare students for the workforce. But that agenda is increasingly overshadowing the point of an education beyond being a direct pipeline to a job.
In its latest Survey of Young Workers, the Federal Reserve said educational programs should be aligned with the needs of the labor market for students to get the most out of their education. That's the sort of philosophy that underpins the Obama administration's push for students to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Graduates with STEM degrees are indeed more likely than their peers to have a job, according to a recent Census Bureau report.
Meanwhile, policymakers are deriding liberal arts studies as having little value. President Barack Obama took a shot at the humanities earlier this year, when he said Americans would be better off pursuing a skilled trade than an art history degree.
It's true that liberal arts majors don't always have an easy career path, but researchers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that over time they are employed at the same rates and can earn similar salaries as people with professional degrees.
And a recent survey by salary information firm PayScale showed that the top three college majors most likely to lead to underemployment were criminal justice, business management & administration and health care administration — all majors that at first blush look eminently practical.
Another study from the Hamilton Project discovered that regardless of major "median earnings of bachelor's degree graduates are higher than median earnings of high school graduates. . . . This is true at career entry, mid-career and end of career."
That bit of information should put some parents at ease, but only looking at the economic value of an education may be a disservice to students and society at large. In a recent piece for The Washington Post, St. John's College President Christopher B. Nelson argued that the "lens of economics distorts our judgment about the true worth of higher education."
The purpose of college, he said, is to produce mature, analytic thinkers. "The educated graduate is an independent learner, able to seek out answers to whatever questions arise, and able to direct his or her own learning in accordance with the challenges that life presents in the circumstances of his or her own life," Nelson wrote. That sort of critical thinking can arguably be achieved with an art history or engineering degree.
College as a commodity is the kind of thinking that has fueled enrollment at for-profit colleges, places that often promise a direct route from the classroom to the workplace. Revelations of the shady marketing practices, overpriced services and uneven performance of some of these schools ultimately led the government to impose restrictions on how much debt their graduates can hold. Some say those rules should be extended to all colleges to reign in the runaway costs of attendance that has grown faster than the rate of inflation.
Ultimately, the biggest reason that degrees have become commodified is their cost. It's a whole lot easier to justify a bachelor's degree in Russian literature when it costs $3,000 a year, as opposed to $12,000. Cost containment would go a long way to allowing students, like Drew on "Parenthood," to pursue what they are passionate about, not just what is more likely to pay the bills.
Douglas-Gabriel covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.