Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What a College Education Gets You

While I very much see the primary purpose of going to college as intellectual rather than practical (perhaps majoring in Classics is a dead give-away in this regard), for a lot of people one of the primary motivations for going to college is to improve their earning potential and employment prospects. This isn't crazy. In 2010, the median income for men with a bachelor's degree of higher was $61,388 a bit more than twice the median income of $30,232 of men with only a high school diploma. For women, the difference is even more stark: $41,132 for women with a bachelor's degree or higher vs. $17,830 for women with only a high school diploma. [source]

There's an interesting report out from the Social Science Research Council entitled Documenting Uncertain Times: Post-graduate Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort which sheds some interesting light on how a college education affects the employment prospects of people just out of college, and specifically, how their major and their academic performance their income, employment, debt, etc. The study is a followup to a book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses which used academic assessment tests to track how much students appeared to be actually learning while in college -- and found the results more modest than might have been hoped. This followup study is based on a detailed survey of roughly 1000 students, most of whom graduated in 2009 and the rest of whom graduated in 2010 or 2011.

Some of the things I found particularly interesting included:

65% of them reported having student loans, with the average student debt for those with debt being $27,200. 15% owed more than $50,000. (This is a lot, but given the stories one reads along the lines of "I owe $100k in student loans and can't get a job!" it's actually better than I expected.)

8% are married
9% are cohabiting
24% have moved back in with parents.

Their average income (for those working full time) is just under $35,000/yr. That average income is pretty much exactly the same if you look a the top 20% academically or the bottom 20% academically, but top 20% are only 3% unemployed while the bottom 20% are 9.6% unemployed.

Social Science/Humanities majors had an average income slightly higher than Science/Math majors ($32,200 vs. $31,721) but they were significantly more likely to be unemployed (6.9% vs. 4.8%)

Engineering/Computer Science majors had the highest average income ($50,625) while Education/Social Work majors had the lowest income ($28,500) and the highest unemployment (13%).

Those with the bottom 20% of the academic assessment scores were just as likely as those in the top 20% to have gone on to full time graduate school (31% vs. 30%). Students who had majored in science or math fields were the most likely to be in grad school (49%), humanities majors were about average (32%) and business and education majors were the least likely (16% and 17% respectively.)

And when it comes to the love life, those with health related majors were the most likely to be married or cohabiting (35%) while those who'd majored in engineering or computer science were the least likely to be so (13%).


cyurkanin said...

LOL: those with health related majors were the most likely to be married or cohabiting (35%) while those who'd majored in engineering or computer science were the least likely to be so (13%)

Anonymous said...

But what about people who majored in Classics?


Ken & Carol said...

Always apples and oranges. Is it possible to find a group of people with similar characteristics and then divide them, some going to college and the rest not?

Darwin said...


On romantic prospects? Well, humanities majors as a whole are 16% married or cohabiting (somewhat better than the engineers and computer science majors) but we Classics majors are definitely at the geekier end of the humanities so it wouldn't surprise me if we were at CompSci levels or below.

Ken & Carol,

The comparison of college graduate and high school graduate incomes in my first paragraph was really just by way of introduction. Clearly, it wouldn't be appropriate to compare the incomes of people just out of college with the incomes of people of all ages with a high school diploma.

It would be really interesting to see a study of people who were somehow evaluated as "similar" and see what their intellectual and professional development was over a long period, comparing those who went to college with those who didn't, but I have no idea how one could conduct such a study. Establishing a group of "apples" is really hard (which is why people tend to use really broad brush measures like "went to college".)

mary said...

read this

MrsDarwin said...

Giving a brief summary of an article you're linking to, instead of simply demanding that we "read this", doesn't really inspire any confidence that the author has made his point clearly enough to be summarized by others. Still, I bit, so we'll use his own summary instead.

Here are his three main points.

To summarize:
A) you learn very little that you use in real life
B) you are so burdened by debt that you can’t use your new-found
knowledge to create real freedom and joy for yourself
C) a young person can use their energy in many other ways than just college.

I think these are three specious conclusions, and not generally applicable. To take C) first, of course a young person can use their energies in other ways than just college. They can also use their energies in other ways than internships, apprenticeships, travel, work, or marriage. The fact that one can of course choose other routes doesn't make any statement about the value of marriage, work, job training, or college.

As to B): debt is indeed a burden if you have no way to pay it off, and if a young person spends four years of life learning so little that he or she is so unsuited to the job market as to be unemployable, then that is a problem both with the college and with the student. Being employable is not just a matter of mastering certain skill sets, but of being open to learning, of synthesizing information clearly and accurately, of interacting with and testing the ideas of others (especially ideas that have been influential throughout history), of working to someone else's specifications and deadlines, and of being able to manage one's time independently. Certainly these are skills that can and should be learned in high school, but college is (or is supposed to be) the laboratory for honing these life skills -- the skills that help acquire the job that pays off the debt.

MrsDarwin said...


And that's just the self-serving analysis. One could also talk about the sharpening effect of studying subjects with professors who have a true mastery of and love for their disciplines. I have to raise an eyebrow at this set of assertions:

English literature is best learned by reading the books you are passionate about. Writing is best learned by having real experiences, writing every day, and reading the great writers who inspire you. Philosophy is learned by having real experiences and reading the philosophers or religious practitioners who inspire you. Imagine learning all of these things because of real world experiences, and then not having any debt. Also, when learning is not force-fed to you you develop a real love and knowledge for how to learn on your own and thats something you keep for the rest of your life.

Ah, but it can be very edifying to know why others have been passionate about certain books, even if one isn't oneself. It can be essential to have instruction in the techniques of writing whether a young person wants to write in the style of the authors he admires, or to develop his own style. And come now, if philosophy is best learned by having "real experiences", then shouldn't we all be notable philosophers? Aren't all experiences "real" by definition?

Life may be an education in itself, but not many people get hired just for living.

And finally, A). The plural of anecdote isn't data, of course, but in my own experience (which ought to be considered valid by the standards of this article) I use my college education every single day. It doesn't make me any money, because I stay at home with my children, but two years of acting classes taught me not necessarily how to act, but how to distill human interactions and analyze them, how to achieve objectives in tough situations, how to read a social situation quickly and adjust my tactics accordingly, etc. The great books program I took taught me how to read with understanding and purpose, how to separate the wheat from the chaff in considering an author's ideas and philosophies, how to argue against what an author is actually saying (instead of what I was reading into him), and how to make clear arguments for or against a text. Could I have learned these things on my own? I guess, but in the sorts of jobs I could have gotten when I was 18, these weren't the skills demanded or emphasized, nor could I have devoted the prime hours of my day to studying under those more intelligent than I was then.

MrsDarwin said...

Sigh. Cutting and pasting problems. First sentence of first comment should have read:

Giving a brief summary of an article you're linking to, instead of simply demanding that we "read this", might inspire some confidence that the author has made his point clearly enough to be summarized by others.

JMB said...

You guys are way too smart for me. I went to college, studied art history (because I thought if I have to take X credits in my major, I may as well enjoy it). I took a summer off and lived in France and could speak it well enough to get a job as a front desk clerk at a fancy hotel in NYC. I hated working weekends so I told the Security Guard on duty that I just wanted a "9 to 5 Mon to Fri job" and guess what? His sister was in HR at a huge brokerage firm on Wall Street. So he set us up for an interview and there I was, Art History major and all, no skills, nothing except for the dude who needed an assistant on the trading floor of the newly formed Derivative Market Group went to my Alma Mater. So there I was, Art History Major sporting an HP calculator and trying to figure out the reverse yield curve on a slope. My education did nothing for me, except get me in the door.

Darwin said...


I gotta say, that is one of the more seriously cool "how I got there" stories I've ever heard.

Charming Disarray said...

The trouble with humanities departments is that there is almost no support for finding a career. I'm a Classics major as well, and in my undergraduate years talking about what job you wanted after graduation was almost a taboo. Anyone who was planning to enter the workforce instead of graduate school was palpably embarrassed and apologetic about it.

As far as I'm concerned, this is disgraceful. It's bad enough that scientists and computer programmers treat the humanities like it's useless, but for humanities professors to be doing this to their own students is sad and destructive. There are lot of career opportunities out there for the right-brained and creative, but navigating the system to find one is difficult if you don't know what you're doing. They should be teaching these things along with English, Philosophy, Languages, etc. Practical, real-world skills like how to even find these jobs and what kind of experience you need.

Five years after getting my degree, I'm getting into proofreading (after working in totally unrelated fields) and I love it. It uses all the skills I learned as a student, but it sure would have been nice to realize that sooner instead of being told how pointless Latin and Greek were in the real world even by the people teaching it to me.

mary said...

Mrs. Darwin,
I appreciate your candid remarks. Sorry to post the link so hastily, but I was on the fly, and thought it was pertinent.

You say much that is true, but the fact remains that the cost of higher education has been exploding out of proportion to the average person's ability to pay for such an education. This is due, in no small part, to the same forces that drove our housing bubble. At what point is it just a sham?
I think there are lessons to be learned in life and I am CERTAIN that our college and university system as it exists right now does a very good job at POSTPONING much of that learning. It serves to extend adolescence, and skews young minds into thinking they know more about real life than they do. Can a "certain type" of person learn a great deal of useful knowledge in college? Yes, and you sound like such a person, but from my experience, at least half of the young people who head off to college waste a great deal of that great expense. The degree of binge drinking, random sex and illicit drug use that I observed at ivy league schools would blow your mind.