Wage studies that analyze which majors correlate with higher earnings ignore other parts of the job-success equation.
Envision this: You're an employer, interviewing a candidate for an entry-level position in your unit. The applicant is very direct.
"I'm in it for the money," she explains. "I make all my choices on the basis of how much I can expect to earn. I chose my major based on earnings reports. I applied for this particular position because you pay more than any other company in the region. Actually, I'm a bit sorry that I didn't stop with a two-year degree, since I read in the newspaper last week that I could have made almost as much in my first job with half the time spent on college. I hate thinking about all the time I wasted."
You have no difficulty deciding not to hire this new graduate. The job applicant who arrives talking money first, money only, lacks common sense, and career sense, too.
And yet our candid candidate did nothing more than parrot—with chilling accuracy and very recent data—the current national dialogue about what really matters in college.
With Americans now experiencing acute anxiety over jobs, money, and our larger future, policy analysis and public discussion of higher education—from the White House down—have focused with laserlike intensity on the connections between college and earnings. The U.S. Department of Education has led this effort with its "gainful employment" regulations—ostensibly aimed at for-profit excess, but all too clearly a blunt instrument waiting to be used on all parts of postsecondary education.
Over the past year, numerous wage studies have analyzed which majors correlate with the highest earnings. And last month, the American Institutes for Research helped produce an even more finely honed analysis, which ties specific programs—for example, business or health—in specific Tennessee colleges to the wages that graduates earned when they entered the job market. Virginia has announced its own program-level wage-data system, and other states are poised to follow.
The larger development behind the AIR study is the emergence of unit-record systems that can tie together, over time, information about an individual student's educational history and other parts of her postgraduate history, including employment. Speaking only for myself—the Association of American Colleges and Universities has taken no position on unit-record systems—this is potentially a very positive development. Given the importance of higher education to America's ability to compete, we urgently need the capacity to track achievement by individuals, and not just by institution.
There is good reason to worry, however, that if these systems focus on only a few data points—such as students' major fields and salary levels—they will end up distracting attention from the very components that matter most in education: individual opportunity, the health of our democracy, and economic vitality and resilience.
The basic problem with the recent spate of wage studies is that they start not with a full analysis of what society needs from its commitment to college, but rather with data sets that are now available and can be correlated. There was a similar problem in the wake of the Spellings Commission report, which called for heightened accountability for institutions of higher education, when leaders responded by asking colleges to select a single generic test—in this case, a standardized national test of critical thinking and communication skills—as the preferred metric for reporting the overall "value added" of an entire college education.
A high-quality accountability system to help determine the value of higher education needs to begin by clarifying the multiple important purposes of higher education—the educational goals—and not just with available measurement tools. Any single metric, by definition, is too narrow for the task of reporting multiple learning outcomes. Reporting "value" with a single metric is therefore potentially dangerous because the reporting itself marginalizes other equally important educational goals that the single tool was never intended to probe.
The fact is that society needs many kinds of talent and knowledge development from the nation's colleges. This is a global century, so wherever a student enrolls and whatever the major, college needs to help build citizens' global intelligence—the knowledge and skills to navigate an era of economic interdependence and cross-cultural intersection. This is a science- and technology-fueled century, so everyone needs science, technology, and mathematical savvy and experience. This is a democracy, so students' ability to engage in collaborative civic problem solving is, in the long run, just as important as their capacity to engage in job-related problem solving. This is an economy where innovation is all-important, so students must develop adaptive and problem-solving skills in addition to critical thinking and quantitative capacities.
In short, whatever students choose as their particular majors, we need to ensure that their choices—majors and core studies combined—help them develop all these capacities. We need to make sure, in short, that college provides students with an opportunity-creating education—a liberal and liberating education—and not just with knowledge specific to a particular field.
Even if we focus strictly on the learning needed for success in the economy, employers who advise the Association of American Colleges and Universities' work on educational quality emphasize that the major is only a part of the job-success equation. What they really want to know, they say, both in national surveys and in focus groups, is whether a graduate can tackle new questions and complex problems. Have graduates developed the capacities and commitment not simply to apply what they learned in their majors, but rather to keep pace with the dizzying pace of change in every field, in organizational ecologies, and in the wider society? Are graduates ready for a lifetime of new learning that will challenge them to make connections across many kinds of evidence and many areas of endeavor?
Wage studies that look only at the graduate's choice of major may well accelerate the narrowing of the American mind at the very moment in history when multidimensional learning—liberal learning—has become essential to success.
A good education, and a good individual data-tracking system, ought to build insight into students' progress on multiple fronts. A good data system would ask how frequently, and how well, the student applied her learning to new problems and real-world settings. And a good data system would ask whether the student was engaged in a course of study that builds global understanding—of other cultures, and of the United States in the world.
In the greater scheme of what matters most to Americans' economic and democratic future, data systems that report students' majors and wages alone are meager measures indeed. Our students deserve fuller guidance on what matters in college. And so does our society.