How to assess the real payoff of a College degree



Just listen to Dimitrius Graham sing. His voice soars up and down the scale like a bird carried on the wind. As a music major at Morgan State University, he seems keenly aware of certain realities about his life: His talent is undeniable and probably innate, and his future is promising but uncertain. He could make a career singing on Broadway or climbing the charts as a Billboard phenomenon. Or he could spend years singing for church groups and community theaters, for little or no money.

Because he went to college already able to sing, and because a career in singing is something of a financial crapshoot, one has to ask: Is he wasting his time and money, getting a degree in something that might not pay off? Mr. Graham, sitting in a campus food court with a group of friends, is quick with an answer.

\”I can\’t not go to college,\” he says flatly. He just had a long conversation with a friend who was drifting at Morgan State, a historically black institution, and who was considering dropping out. He tried to dissuade his friend, saying that would lead to an unsteady retail job at best. \”By the time you have worked there for a while, I will be done and will have a more secure job,\” he told his friend. For Mr. ­Graham, it was all about the job, the opportunities, the doors that would open with a parchment embossed in gothic lettering.

\”There are so many things I could do,\” he says, \”because I have networked so much. College is really full of opportunities.\”

Mr. Graham is a hopeful voice at a time when the public has lost some faith in the value of college education—perhaps irrationally. After all, numerous studies have shown that, on the whole, college graduates are far more likely to get jobs and earn more money than nongraduates are. To cite one: A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center asked, \”Is College Worth It?\” Most respondents said Americans were not getting a \”good value\” for the money they spent on a college education. And yet those who had graduated from college estimated that they were getting, on average, $20,000 more a year than they would without the degree—a figure that lines up with U.S. Census results. The college graduates in the study also said they were more satisfied with their jobs because of their degrees, and they credited college with helping them grow intellectually and socially.

But skepticism about the value of college persists—particularly among politicians, pundits, and number crunchers. \”It\’s time to drop the college-for-all crusade,\” argues the financial columnist Robert J. Samuelson. \”Do too many young people go to college?\” asked a Wall Street Journal article in which experts debated \”whether a lot of students would be better off spending their time and money somewhere else.\” And there was the acidic headline from a George Mason University economist: \”How many college-educated janitors do we need?\”

What Is College For?

Looking at college explicitly in terms of its \”return on investment,\” measured in starting salaries and potential earnings, is something new—a confluence of anxieties about the rising cost of college, mounting debt among students, a flaccid economy, and the ubiquitous vocabulary of the market. This perspective is everywhere now, embedded in the U.S. Department of Education\’s College Scorecard, the college \”ROI rankings\” from the salary-tracking company PayScale, the countless recent books assessing the value of college, and The Chronicle\’s own new tool, College Reality Check. (See box on facing page.)

The conversation about college and its returns gets down to a question that has dogged academe for decades, if not centuries: What is higher education for: Personal growth? A golden ticket? Or some of both?

John R. Thelin, a professor of education at the University of Kentucky and author of a major history of American higher education, cites a moment in the 1870s from The Education of Henry Adams as the advent of the idea that a college degree would pay off. Adams asks a Harvard undergraduate from the Midwest what he thinks his education will do for him. \”The degree of Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago,\” the student replies. A flummoxed Adams was trying to instill something deeper in his students.

Tallying the costs of and returns on a college education in financial terms is surely slippery business: It depends on who you are, where you come from, where you think you\’re going, where you really are capable of going, and what might derail or propel you along the way. One\’s perspective is also skewed by political beliefs, race, and class. And for some, particularly among advocates of the liberal arts, framing the value of education in dollars and cents is a perilous trend that discounts other benefits, like college graduates\’ tendencies to be more involved in civic and intellectual life.

\”There is a drumbeat to look at the value of higher education through the value of the short-term earning power of college graduates,\” says John R. Kroger, president of Reed College. \”The ROI argument is mainly looking at the return to the individual and the family. Another thing we ought to be measuring is the societal gain. When someone goes to college and decides, I am going to be a teacher instead of a patent lawyer, one of the things you might conclude is that even if the individual gain is rather limited, the societal gain is enormous.\”

\”An education that treats people just like economic actors and is concerned mostly with training them to be producers and consumers is really limited,\” Mr. Kroger says. \”No one has ever viewed that as the purpose of education.\”

Higher education may not be explicitly about training people who make things and buy stuff, but it has long flirted with a utilitarian role. Many people believe that American colleges were established primarily to teach clergy, but Mr. Thelin debunks that notion in his book, A History of American Higher Education. Early colonial colleges not only helped to \”identify and ratify a colonial elite,\” he points out, but also were responsible for developing social values and leadership skills among young men who would inherit the New World.

Some colleges were more utilitarian out of necessity. Inland institutions like Amherst, Williams, and Dartmouth were \”hardscrabble colleges\” that appealed to young men who did not inherit their fathers\’ lands and had to find a profession to make their way in the world, Mr. Thelin says. In the 19th century, the Morrill Act, which established the nation\’s land-grant colleges, focused more on professions and practical skills. (Mr. Thelin notes, though, that employers distrusted the book learning of college-educated men and women, even in highly technical fields like engineering, until well into the 1900s.)

But many college educations had a kind of open ending. Ivy League students may now have reputations as careerists, but not so in the days of The Great Gatsby. Mr. Thelin has mined the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and checked them against historical sources to learn that many Ivy League students in the early 20th century were \”clueless with what to do with themselves after college.\”

\”The elite colleges were very vague in what they could provide or promise in terms of a direct job payoff,\” Mr. Thelin says. Many Ivy alumni exploited their connections to go into bond trading in Manhattan, mainly because New York City was a hopping social scene.

After World War II, the currency of degrees changed. In the early part of the century, Mr. Thelin says, even high-school diplomas were difficult for some Americans to achieve—fewer than 10 percent graduated in 1910. After the war, when secondary schooling became far more common, a college degree became the distinction that separated one job applicant from the rest.

By the 1970s, Mr. Thelin says, college presidents had honed a pitch for state legislatures and citizen groups: Higher education is good for the state economy, and if you want your daughters and sons to be prepared to take their place in that economy, it behooves them to have a higher education. And at the time, the pitch was true.

But they were beginning to tie academe to a return on investment, setting up an approach to measuring college\’s value in paychecks. \”That\’s where they mortgaged themselves,\” Mr. Thelin says. \”They took a short-run triumph but now have a long-term consequence by emphasizing the job payoff.\”

Now 30 percent of Americans age 25 to 29 have college degrees, compared with 12 percent 40 years ago. That\’s still only a fraction of the population, and yet a persistent question today is whether college is the differentiator that it used to be. Mr. Thelin worriedly reads about recent and soon-to-be graduates who toil in unpaid internships, and he marvels at the current, awful job market for law students.

\”I always thought that American society had an insatiable appetite to accommodate law degrees somehow,\” he says.

The disconnect between degrees and the job market is \”a real cause for national alarm,\” he says. \”These kids are educated and motivated, but this logjam is not going to be a temporary problem. … We are in a fundamental wrenching of the economy and how we socialize and educate people for it.\”

Assessing a college education for its return on investment has no clear-cut approach, because different people expect so many different outcomes from their college experiences. Of course, that experience is colored by what students bring to college. Walking around Reed College, where the sticker price is nearly $50,000 a year, students speak eloquently about education\’s spiritual and intellectual rewards. One student dropped a potentially lucrative major in physics for classics. Another casually used the word \”telos\” in describing the purpose of college and her growth as a thinker. All downplayed any financial rewards.

But almost none of the students encountered on a recent misty morning on the Portland, Ore., campus had to worry about money anyway. Either they would not incur debt, or their parents would take care of it.

Anna Baker is an exception. An art-history major, she says she will probably accumulate $100,000 in loans by the time she graduates. \”It\’s really scary, and I try not to think about the debt, and I also don\’t think that I am ever going to have a high-paying job.\” She could have gone to one of the University of California campuses for the in-state rate, but she does not regret her decision. \”I feel like I have become this Reedie who is a critical thinker, who questions things—maybe to a bad degree,\” she says. \”I would rather live a cool life and be in debt than worry about money constantly.\”

At Morgan State, just down the road from some tough neighborhoods in Baltimore, the approach to education is a bit more pragmatic. And yet Mr. Graham and his friends, sitting in the campus food court, have differing expectations for college\’s purpose and payoff.

Lauren Jones, a former Miss Maryland Teen whose expressive face lights up under a hood of electrically curly black hair, is a broadcast-journalism major. College for her is not just about the education or the diploma. \”It\’s for better career opportunities and networking,\” she says. \”The people you meet here are going to be people who are influential after you graduate.\”

Everyone in Joshua Ridley\’s father\’s family went to college, so for him college was an expectation. \”My sister didn\’t go to school, so now they are looking at me,\” he says. Aside from the classroom learning, he sees college as a dress rehearsal for real life, where even small things like financial-aid hassles will prepare him for bureaucratic and professional challenges as an adult. He loves filmmaking but considers film directing too risky as a career choice, so he has changed his major to business. \”I still love film,\” he says, but he would rather approach it as a businessman than an artist.

For Hakeem Burch, who comes from Buffalo, the stakes in college are much higher. No one pushed him. \”For me it was an option, but in my mind it was not an option,\” he says. \”I feel that if I stayed home, I would be a statistic. I would be in the streets, in a graveyard, or in jail. I didn\’t want to end up like everyone else.\” He started out at Morgan State as a biology major, considering anesthesiology down the road, and then switched to journalism. He would make more money as an anesthesiologist, he says, \”but my love for writing would push me more.\”

That passion could propel these students to become the next Oprah, the next Harvey Weinstein, or the next Tom Wolfe. Or they could settle into solid but unremarkable careers in their chosen fields. Or become something else entirely.

Or, like more than half of first-time, full-time students who attend Morgan State, they could fail to graduate or transfer within six years and drop out. Many of the young African-American students there start with tremendous financial, educational, and cultural challenges. Jarrett Carter, a university spokesman who escorted me around the campus, says the students feel pressure not only to live up to expectations of their families, but also to be a positive example for African-American culture. It is often a \”make or break\” experience, he says.

That\’s life—full of risks. But should the decision to go to college be one of them?

Many of those who scrutinize college\’s return on investment now say no—that the investment has gotten too steep to assume everything will work out eventually. Richard K. Vedder, an emeritus professor of economics at Ohio University and a frequent contributor to The Chronicle, has been at the forefront of this argument. There are a million retail-sales clerks and 115,000 janitors with four-year degrees, he says. In 1970, just two-tenths of 1 percent of taxi drivers had college degrees. \”Fifteen percent of the taxi drivers have college degrees now, we\’re told by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.\”

Part of the problem here is that the data are incomplete—even Mr. Vedder has to guess at conclusions from what\’s available. For example, last year Virginia made headlines when it unveiled a database on starting salaries of students from the state\’s public institutions. But the database lacked students who had moved out of state, who were working as independent contractors, or who were employed by entities, like federal agencies, that do not report to the Virginia Employment Commission.

To trepidation from college leaders, the Virginia database inspired calls to more broadly track the starting salaries of college graduates. Last year, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Marco Rubio of Florida co-sponsored the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would expand data collection on the employment and incomes of recent graduates. Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, told her membership in a newsletter that the bill \”overreaches and is ultimately unworkable.\” The bill did not pass last year, but Mr. Wyden will reintroduce it next month.

College presidents see such efforts as spillover from the scandals that have rocked the for-profit colleges, in which students have amassed unmanageable debts and cannot find work. Traditional colleges, the academic leaders point out, support more-open-ended educations, which aren\’t necessarily measured well in starting salaries.

That may be true. But \”kids in high school ought to be given realistic appraisals of what their chances of success in college will be,\” Mr. Vedder says. He has advocated steering more students on vocational paths rather than to college. \”Someone has to drive those 18-wheel trucks.\”

Colleges, meanwhile, should have more at stake in students\’ success or failure, he says. \”If a kid drops out of school—and there are colleges where 80 to 90 percent of the kids drop out—what does the college lose? Nothing. … If the default rates on student loans rise, and taxpayers are left holding the bill, why shouldn\’t colleges pay some of the bill?\”

College Reality Check

That kind of talk resonates with Ronnie L. Booth, president of Tri-County Technical College, near Greenville, S.C. A vocational degree is not for everyone, he readily admits, but many of his students are arriving with four-year degrees in hand, looking for something practical. In coming months, he will direct Tri-County\’s academic counselors to more aggressively steer students away from fields and majors that might prove a bad fit. Don\’t like the sight of blood or the smell of bodily fluids? Nursing might not be for you. Interested in engineering? Let\’s have a serious talk about your grades in algebra.

\”Better to find out on the front end,\” he says. \”I believe in truth in advertising.\”

More parents and students, he says, need to \”understand that someone has to pay the bills.\” In his region, he frequently meets waiters and waitresses who have four-year degrees, and he has a friend whose daughter went to college to study dance. She is working in retail.

\”That is not what Daddy had anticipated,\” Mr. Booth says in a Southern drawl. \”I believe in a broad educational program, things that make you a good citizen, but I am not sure that it is necessary to rack up $50,000 or $100,000 in debt to get that—and then not to be able to get employment. I have told my children that one of Daddy\’s goals is to get you off my payroll.\”

Mr. Booth hints at one of the contentious discussions around return on investment: that a liberal-arts education is impractical, even effete, with tenuous connections to the world of work. The discussion entwines with politics, as conservatives in particular have attacked the liberal arts and other \”soft\” fields. In some cases, those conservatives seem to have an agenda besides improving the work force.

This year Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, went on the conservative William J. Bennett\’s radio show and complained about the \”educational elite.\” He bashed fields like gender studies and said state funds for higher education should be \”not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.\”

Mr. Bennett, a former U.S. secretary of education, is himself coming out with a book in May, called Is College Worth It? Written for a conservative-Christian audience, it raises questions about return on investment, with charts and tables that look at the perceived payoff of degrees from different colleges and in various majors. It also paints mainstream colleges as out of touch, places where sex, alcohol, and aggressive identity politics are tolerated but guns are not.

Degrees in the \”classical liberal arts\” can be \”intellectually rewarding,\” the book says. \”But if you do major in liberal arts or a social science, … understand that your employment prospects, especially in the current economy, may be limited, even dramatically so.\” (Mr. Bennett, incidentally, got his bachelor\’s degree in philosophy at Williams College; his co-author, David Wilezol, is a graduate student in Greek and Latin at Catholic University.)

But casting the liberal arts as a financial dead end seems misleading. Students with a stout work ethic—qualities generally revered by political conservatives—might end up making more money following a passion to a liberal-arts degree than might those who dutifully enter more \”useful\” fields.

\”There is at least some evidence that fields with high starting salaries are fields where you plateau early,\” says Dennis P. Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. \”It\’s the students in the broader-based arts-and-sciences fields that end up in the CEO positions, but it takes a long time to get there.\”

The center is working with the Association of American Colleges and Universities to examine the lifetime returns from various kinds of degrees. The study will attempt to counter the stories of extremes—the student who racks up $200,000 in debt and can\’t find a job, or who drops out and makes millions as a dot-com entrepreneur—that are \”distorting the conversation,\” Mr. Jones says.

As rising college costs have loaded more and more debt onto the backs of Americans, the return-on-investment conversation seems inevitable—­and perhaps prudent. But a single-minded focus on money pays little heed to one of the best aspects of the American higher-education system: its skill at developing curious, critical-thinking, culturally aware people. Those qualities may have greater financial rewards than critics realize.

Frances Bronet, dean of the school of architecture at the University of Oregon, knows that defending the mission sounds elitist. She grew up intensely poor in Montreal. \”There was no way I could go to school and not have an immediate return,\” she says. \”My parents already thought that my going to school was an opportunity lost.\” She went to McGill University and majored in architecture and engineering—technical fields she knew would pay.

Now one of her great regrets in life is not having gotten a broader liberal-arts education. \”We talk about people being entrepreneurial, but it\’s really about being creative, thoughtful, and critical,\” she says.

When she taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, her department surveyed engineering alumni, asking what they felt they had missed in their education. Graduates who were a year out of college wished they had gotten more technical skills. Those who were five years out wanted more management skills. But alumni who were 10 to 20 years into their careers wanted more cultural literacy, \”because they were traveling all over the world, working with cultures they never experienced before,\” she says.

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, worries about an overbearing focus on utilitarian degrees and financial returns. \”I find that college students today are good, but they have only been given the vocabulary of the marketplace, so they instinctively turn to phrases like \’human capital\’ and \’opportunity costs\’ and \’return on investment,\’\” he says in an interview. \”All of those are perfectly legitimate ways of seeing an education, unless they are the only ways. I wouldn\’t mind all of the talk of education as an economic input if there were as robust a talk about the values that education was supposed to be offering.\”

The \”soft\” social skills and cultural lessons have plenty of value—even financial value, he argues. Employers want people who can write, who can intuit what others are thinking, who can learn from others. \”These are actually practical skills in an economy that is based more and more on social relationships,\” he says.

Mr. Brooks adds that he never saw his own undergraduate education, at the University of Chicago, in practical terms. There might have been a cultural aversion to that kind of careerist view of education, perhaps a legacy of Chicago\’s former president Robert Maynard Hutchins. \”There is no doubt that education must be useful. It must meet the needs of the individual and of society,\” Hutchins wrote in The University of Utopia, in 1953. \”The question is: What are those needs? … In many ages it has been thought that education could make its greatest contribution by helping people learn to think and by familiarizing them with the intellectual tradition in which they live.\”

In 1983, when Mr. Brooks graduated, he might have stood out as an example of higher education\’s failures in the eyes of folks like Mr. Vedder. \”A lot of people drifted after college, including me, because we were totally unprepared for the world outside,\” Mr. Brooks says. \”I had a fantasy of being a playwright, but I had never worked in the theater.\” Instead he worked as a bartender for a year and submitted articles to magazines, which were consistently rejected. Then he got a job at the City News Bureau of Chicago, where he finally got training in a practical skill.

From those beginnings, Mr. Brooks has become exceptionally successful in his career. Was it his intrinsic smarts or his upbringing? Was it his University of Chicago education or the Chicago pedigree? Was it merely luck or some combination of all of the above?

What defines success?

It\’s a question at the foundation of this return-on-investment discussion, and one that Dimitrius Graham and his friends ponder in the food court at Morgan State.

Joshua Ridley, the film-loving business major, says college makes him feel that he is already associated with a different class of people—those who drive nice cars and have nice things. Hakeem Burch, the aspiring writer from Buffalo, says he would be happy if his words connected with no more than a few people. Lauren Jones says she has prepared her whole life to work in broadcast news. If she doesn\’t make it, she says, \”I would think, Wow, what did I do that screwed it up? I am not going to blame it on the school.\”

Mr. Graham, meanwhile, exudes confidence. \”Because I have a good voice, it\’s a promising career,\” he says, before backing down slightly. If his vocal cords get nodules or if he otherwise doesn\’t make it in entertainment, he can use his training to become a music teacher, and then maybe become principal of a school. College has put him on the right path.

\”I am set, regardless,\” he says. \”I just need to focus and handle my business, and then I can be an artist or an opera singer, or I can be a really good teacher who has a good life. Either way, it\’ll work out.\”