You Are What You Earn?

Recently, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce released some findings about what new graduates could expect to earn. The results are interesting and may well speak to where the workforce will head if left to market forces.

Georgetown’s researchers found that the lifetime earnings difference between high school and college graduates was approximately $1 million. This is good news and continues to support claims that a college degree is worth the investment, despite the levels of debt that students incur in obtaining their degrees.

Of more interest perhaps is the difference between the lowest- and highest-paying college majors, now estimated to be $3.4 million over a lifetime of expected earnings.   Further, the researchers demonstrated that the major matters.

Among highest earning majors, petroleum engineering majors at mid-career stand out at $136,000 per annum in 2013, with pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences and administration earning a mid-career salary of $113,000 per year.

At the opposite end, graduates in early childhood education earned $39,000, human services earned $41,000 and studio arts, social work, teacher education, and visual and performing arts majors could expect to receive a pay check of $42,000 per year at the mid-stage of their careers.

This is not good news.

In a capitalist economy, we understand that applicants for employment will be paid what the market will bear. So, in a sense we are paying for what we value as a society. Technical skills in high demand fields like energy and health sciences will offer applicants higher salaries. These skills are needed by the industries that employ them.

If so, the question is a simple one: Do market forces and what’s good for American society mirror one another?

Based on the Georgetown study findings, the answer is “no.” This brings us to a logical next question: If not, is there something that American higher education can do to offset market forces to promote goals that strengthen and stabilize American society?

To this end, we offer some thought on changes that should occur to re-center the values shared by American society to support a different, broader set of outcomes.

First, any strategic thought partnership of education, government and industry must recognize the value and support college-level training in fields that build a rich and robust society. We need teachers, social workers, and visual and performing artists because what they offer to us reflects the history, values and traditions that created and sustain the American democracy.

Understandably, we must educate productive citizens who are also employees with practical, marketable skills. A society that underfunds its teacher scholars risks its competitive edge, innovative and adaptive creativity, and sense of moral purpose. We cannot permit drinking Lite Beer and watching endless reality television to become our “bread and circus” new normal as did Rome before the Empire fell.

To do so, we must provide an affordable college education that is less burdened by student debt and rewards those who choose less lucrative careers. It’s equal parts loan forgiveness, efficient education delivery mechanisms in the classroom and clinic, and the timely completion of graduates.

Second, American colleges and universities must use their strategic plans and capital campaigns to retake the high ground on who they educate. It’s important not to allow market forces to dominate a college’s mission and sense of self. Close the education department if you cannot support it and will not fund it. It’s not an appendage or necessary convenience to support and round out majors like pharmacy and engineering. Tuition dollars from one should not be used to bankroll the expensive labs, internships, field experiences, and clinical training of the other.

Majors like education and social services must be seen as a collective opportunity by the American higher education community to make the case that the best and brightest should migrate to them. Beyond current scholarships and loan forgiveness programs, a strategic partnership of business, education, and government must provide the financial support and a tuition pricing package that makes the receipt of a lower-paying salary feasible.

It can be useful to think of it in these terms. Investments in lower-paying jobs that benefit society as a whole are fundamentally about repairing America’s infrastructure. They are the roads and bridges that link society to the life of the mind, provide the continuity between and among generations, and help ensure that the traditions and principles that govern American society continue to ring true.

Finally, American society, led by higher education, needs to collect better data. While workforce needs should not drive college preparation, we can at a minimum be more intentional about what we know and what is likely to happen over the longer-term.   The American workforce must include the full complement of jobs characterized by type and shaped by demographics that are necessary to support a growing economy.

The good news is that the Georgetown study demonstrates that a college degree matters and is still the best path into the American middle class. The even better news is that with a bit of planning, restructuring, and redeployment we might be able to make salary gaps matter less and noble intentions matter more for all of us when choosing a college major.

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