What’s More Important, Average Salaries or Average Debt?

A recent study performed by the American Institutes for Research indicates that graduates of different college programs in Virginia, and with different majors, earned wildly different salaries. But how important is this, really, for trying to create higher education policy? Is this the right outcome on which to focus our energy? According to the report:

At the bachelor’s degree level, the highest earning graduates came from two career-oriented programs at the University of Richmond, where graduates in information sciences and in human resources management averaged more than $69,000 per year. Meanwhile, graduates from sixteen programs across the Commonwealth earned on average less than $24,000. Most of these are traditional liberal arts programs, such as Philosophy or fine arts related.

Well right, of course it works that way. Should we be surprised? Something would be very wrong if philosophy majors earned more than people who majored in vocational things like human resource management.


But what does this mean? The study is careful not to be too prescriptive, but some policy judgment does creep in:

Although there are many rewards to postsecondary education besides the boost in wages, students who borrow too much in relation to their early-career wages may not have the opportunity to fully appreciate these other rewards. …We think the data we report should be made widely accessible to the public and be a central component of consumer choice.

The introduction states that “from a financial perspective, many of [college freshman] made bad decisions about which college to attend, and many more will choose the wrong degrees and majors over the next few years.”

The wrong majors?

Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, told Congress in August that “students and their families should have [salary] information at their fingertips so they can make better-informed decisions about where to enroll, what to major in and how much debt they might comfortably take on relative to their likely earnings.”

Duly noted, but the AIR report was released by the the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), a Virginia organization that “makes higher education public policy recommendations to the state.

If the point is to make higher education policy recommendations, however, it’s perhaps not best to get hung up on consumer choice, which is of sort of limited use here. As I’ve pointed out before, reports like these tend to suggest something sort of troublesome. If graduates with majors with engineering and math and biology tend to make more money and have an easier time paying off their debt, more people should major in these things (or make better-informed decisions about… what to major in”).

This is ridiculous. We actually need people majoring in philosophy and English literature and women’s studies and anthropology. These subjects are important. People majoring in such subjects know, if they stick with that choice as an actual career, that they’ll make less money. That’s fine. People should be allowed, even encouraged, to have professional careers where they don’t make much money. Most people aren’t rich; that’s okay.

The problem is the cost of the programs. If we’re talking about consumer choices, it’s perhaps worth asking why any Virginia offers any programs in which students could potentially not make enough money to pay of their debt.

It’s not so useful for a state organization to let students know they’ll likely make more money if they study human resource management than if they study philosophy at University of Richmond (which is, admittedly, not supported by the state). Consumer choices don’t address the real problem: why should anyone’s major be unaffordable? The important thing here is that the average student leaves Richmond $22,915 in debt. Why should students, no matter what their major, be paying an average net price of $19,429 a year to attend the University of Richmond? [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer