HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: On Path To Riches, No Sign Of Fluffy Majors: “Exactly what an English major makes in a lifetime has never been clear, and some defenders of the humanities have said that their students are endowed with ‘critical thinking’ and other skills that could enable them to catch up to other students in earnings. Turns out, on average, they were wrong. Over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who have majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology, according to an analysis by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.”

Plus, the kicker: “The report comes as the recession and escalating college costs have renewed questions about the value of a college degree. During the past two decades, the average amount of debt a student takes on has roughly doubled in real terms, leading more parents and students to focus on the financial returns of their college investments.”

UPDATE: Prof. Judd Owen emails:

Professor Reynolds: I follow your higher education bubble posts with interest. This one chafed, as one of my main tasks as an educator is to take students who look on their college degree simply as a financial investment, and try to introduce them to the idea of what a real liberal arts education is. For most it doesn’t register, but for a few the study of old, impractical books (I teach Plato, Hobbes, etc.) that simply help them see themselves and the world better is a real gift. I understand that when we in the academy think “humanities” we think of a lot of trendy and ideologically confused junk, which I would love to see die as soon as possible. But when the value of a degree is simply measured by counting the dollars it generates upon graduation, we need a term other than “education.” Certainly NOT “higher education,” as there’s nothing high about it. How about vocational training? That vocational training is more lucrative than a genuine education is hardly news. It has to be. Why else would you study petroleum engineering?

Well, I take the point. But when your college education costs as much as a Ferrari, then either (1) you need to be really rich; or (2) it needs to show a return on investment. If college were as cheap as it was 50 years ago, that wouldn’t be as significant a factor. But it’s not.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Hardest Lesson Awaits Graduates.

Hey, Joe College! You just finished four years of higher education, burned through $200,000, piled on a mountain of personal debt and have a B.A. in French lit — what are you going to do now?

“I’m going to . . . move back in with my parents!” . . .

Nearly a quarter of this year’s graduates won’t be able to find a job. When they do, one in five will get a job that requires no college. In other words, jobs they could have gotten without wasting four years playing beer pong and chasing sorority girls.

Only 55 percent of grads under 25 have a job that requires a college degree of any kind, much less the degree they shelled out all that money for.

And speaking of money, Fidelity Investments found the average 2011 graduate will have $39,000 in debt. Meanwhile the percentage of grads defaulting on their loans jumped a record 27 percent last year and “college graduates are one of the fastest-growing groups of bankruptcy filers in the United States,” according to the Gingold & Gingold law firm.

So, you know, the economics need to work — or colleges and politicians need to stop selling higher education as an investment. One small correction, though: The author is clearly out of date. Nowadays, if you’re a college guy, the sorority girls chase you.

MORE: Reader Richard Egan writes:

To a certain extent I agree with you both. I home school my daughter, HS sophomore, and she is being educated in a mostly classical manner, but also with an emphasis on math and science including labs. The reason being is she may/probably will have to work and the skills she is getting will serve her well but I also expect he to take a “real Major” in College just because she may have to work. Something which will provide he a living though not necessarily a lucrative one.

Why? My Grandmother was widowed in 1951 at about 50; with a child still at home and no real income she had to work and ended up working in a factory at a low wage. My Mother in law was widowed at 45 with two kids at home, got social security and something from his Post Office pension plan. She had to go to work and fortunately was able to find a book keeping job. Eventually she went to college, graduated and was able to support herself till she retired.

You do not know what is going to happen but to not prepare in some way is dumb.

That said I would love to have had the wherewithal to take a fully “liberal” education and that is what I am doing now sort of in reading the Great Books, and reading on philosophy, history and more. A liberal education as it once existed was restricted to the wealthy. It was due to companies in the late 60s, early 70s wanting to cut down on the number of applicants that started requiring a college degree for entry level positions that changed things. Also the desire for many to use college attendance and then teaching job as a way of avoiding the draft again in the 60s and 70s.

Now it is funny in that many companies use a Masters degree as a differentiator in hiring people.


PS I have a PhD because I I went back to get it after working in IT for 28 years and I wanted to teach in a college.

Yes, the traditional liberal arts degree was for the rich. It still is, I guess. There are just loans to make up the difference. And another reader writes:

Regarding Prof. Judd Owen’s rebuttal to this post, the last line of his email reveals a nasty prejudice regarding engineering. I know it wasn’t the point of the post at all but as someone with an engineering degree and several family members who work in petroleum engineering, I can say there are lots of reasons to study the subject aside from money:

1) The person enjoys solving real-world problems

2) The person wishes to pursue a career that offers a blend of geology & engineering again for the enjoyment of it

3) The person feels proud to join an industry that has enriched their family for generations

I’m not knocking philosophy or its value to college students; I’m just saying if humanities profs want to be taken a bit more seriously, how about they not act like studying Plato or Hobbes is somehow magically the only way to “simply help them see themselves and the world better.” For the record, one of the best courses I took in college was “Philosophy of the Engineering Method”. Great blend of liberal arts & more technical/science-oriented students and it’s one of the few textbooks that I re-read for the sheer pleasure of it. Of course, the class was taught out of the Engineering not Classics college and by an engineering professor….

I doubt you’ll post this but if you do, please only include the below


A seat-belt engineer who reads Aristolte absent any course requirements.

The Modern British Poetry course I took from Bob Leggett changed my life. But I’m glad I didn’t try to get a job based on it.

STILL MORE: Reader Chris DeMorro writes:

Hi Glenn. My name is Chris DeMorro. I’m 25 years old, approx. $33,000 in debt (down from over 40k!) and I am one of the few of my college-educated peers who is both employed, and not living at home.

I’m not going to defend the college classroom experience because it was, at least for me, a joke. A very, very expensive joke.

I was an English major, and most of my classes were nothing more than sitting around and discussing the last book we read. I’d sometimes even have to write a paper. My major, which should have been training me to do…something….was a cakewalk. I was not once challenged as an English major, and I can’t imagine any other well-read young person would be either. Me and most of my peers worked only as hard as we had to so that we could pass one class and move on to the other.

The professors weren’t much help either, and most of them wanted to move us along as bad as we wanted to pass. It’s a education factory, no matter your major really. An expensive one at that. I only got where I am because I did a lot of work where the only payment was a byline (and often not even that) and I never turned down a chance to network. Too many of my peers were more concerned with partying OR over-studying to actually go out and take advantage of the resources college offers to enterprising individuals who want to actually do something with their lives other than work to make someone else wealthy.

By the time I have children, I’m not even sure college will be affordable anymore. That may not be a bad thing though.

P.S. If the name looks familiar, it’s because I am the editor of Gas2.org, and you throw links from your site my way on a fairly regular basis. I appreciate the love.

Nice site. And reader David McCune writes:

Military service has served as one of the great engines of class mobility in America’s history. It offers a field where gender, race, and parental income are of less importance that most. I’d argue that it is one of the United States’ most meritocratic institutions this side of professional sports.

Given that concerns about the higher education bubble are seeping into the public consciousness, I’d like to point out that an ROTC scholarship offers not only a means to pay for school, but also a hedge against choosing the “wrong” major. Students complete a military science curriculum while in ROTC, then are eligible for a commission as a military officer upon graduation.

Taken together:

1) A job at graduation

2) Minimal debt

3) A curriculum that covers the role crucial of war in human history

These give a student the freedom to take on a liberal arts education with much less fear an adverse job market (and of moving in with mom and dad in 4 years). It’s also a great springboard to whatever civilian career one eventually pursues. I can speak from personal experience, as the members of my Princeton ROTC class generally completed their service and went on to be highly successful doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and (in one case) a professional musician.

Yes. That’s why I’m glad to see ROTC return to the Ivy League.