Monday, July 30, 2007

Liberal Arts Majors are Cheap

Neither of my undergraduate degrees are "useful" or instrumentalist--indeed, that's the running joke of the "so what are you going to do with that?" question one gets at family reunions, and why those "What To Do With Your English Degree" presentations at the career center are so depressing. I never wanted to be a technical writer or copy editor.

But at least I was cheap! I only cost the school chalk or dry-erase markers, and my professors were probably the least paid at the university--or worse, they were rotating adjuncts and lecturers.

From the NYT, "Certain Degrees Now Cost More at Public Universities":

Should an undergraduate studying business pay more than one studying psychology? Should a journalism degree cost more than one in literature? More and more public universities, confronting rising costs and lagging state support, have decided that the answers may be yes and yes.

Such moves are being driven by the high salaries commanded by professors in certain fields, the expense of specialized equipment and the difficulties of getting state legislatures to approve general tuition increases, university officials say.

Even as they embrace such pricing, many officials acknowledge they are queasy about a practice that appears to value one discipline over another or that could result in lower-income students clustering in less expensive fields.

Private universities do not face the same tuition constraints and for the most part are avoiding the practice, educators say, holding to the traditional idea that college students should be encouraged to get a well-rounded education.

“There was a time, not that long ago, 10 to 15 years ago, that the vast majority of the cost of education at public universities was borne by the state, and that was why tuition was so low,” he said. “That was based on the premise that the education of an individual is a public good, that individuals go out and become schoolteachers and businessmen and doctors and lawyers, that makes society better. That’s no longer the perception.”

While several university officials said students in majors that carried higher costs could bear the burden because they would be better paid after graduation, Mr. Lariviere said he was skeptical of that rationale. He pointed out that many people change jobs several times over a career and that a major is a poor predictor of lifetime income.

“Where we have gone astray culturally,” he said, “is that we have focused almost exclusively on starting salary as an indicator of life earnings and also of the value of the particular major.”

I'm one of those fluffernutters who believes in well-rounded, holistic, classic liberal arts education. I'm also one of those realists that grew up poor on free lunches, so I think it's perfectly reasonable to think of a college education instrumentally. I'm very much in favor of public education (it's a pretty good deal in my state), I just wish it wasn't tanking due to recent budget crises. I always wanted to go to a small liberal arts college, but alas, the combination of cheap tuition + scholarships meant that I could never rationalize going to one. So I have a half-romantic, half-utilitarian conception of education.

I went to college planning to go to law school right after--and because there's no such thing as a "pre-law" degree, I decided to just learn a set of tools and skills--and do that in subjects that interested me. For me, that was English literature--to hone my reading and writing skills. And political science--which I kind of regret--you don't need to learn law-related subjects in college, and political science is interesting in and of itself. But not as a stepping stone to law school. I would have gone onto political science grad school though, if I was more interested in the quantitative or area studies work rather than political theory (which is going down in popularity and is thus that much harder a niche to crack). In retrospect, I should have taken more economics courses and some higher level math. But in general, I just took whatever interested me--philosophy and art history courses, medieval literature and history, critical theory--college is definitely a great time to learn things that enrich your life, but do not necessarily add to your utility belt.

But I don't think there's anything wrong with taking a two-pronged approach to education. I always had my practical, utilitarian goal of learning X and Y or pursuing some kind of career track--and tried to make time for the love of learning stuff too. Of course, I was lucky enough to go to school on schoalrship. So I was able to turn Antiseptic State School into a quasi liberal arts experience by double majoring, taking summer school to get through the requirements and have fun courses on top. And while I worked to help pay for expenses and books, I didn't have to work to pay for everything. I lived at home with my parents, and so I only had to work enough to defray the costs--not to the point where it would have impacted my required studies, much less my fun classes.

It doesn't feel right that we should make students that young and at that stage in their intellectual development and career path pay more for their choices. They should be allowed some freedom to experiment and change--not be so coddled as to be allowed a grand 7 year plan, but I do think it's perfectly fine to take an extra year or change a major. Nor should students be penalized for taking an instrumentalist, utilitarian view of education--doing so only reifies that idea of a degree being only serviceable towards some future goal, and that learning is not valueable in and of itself. Plus, I wonder what kinds of students this really impacts. I don't think most of my journalist friends ever thought that their degree was inherently more utilitarian than an English literature degree (the classic path)--they get to pay more now to earn just as less later?! Business majors have to pay more to learn things that they will find of limited use in the actual working world?! This is ridiculous.

At the graduate level, it seems more defensible (but it still sucks) to exact a pay differential for "professional students" (my woeful status) as compared to "graduate students." Because of the higher initial salary, perhaps doctors, dentists, and lawyers should pay more for their education (unless of course, they work for the public good--and then I'm all for debt forgiveness programs). If your education requires more expensive equipment than a whiteboard and dry-erase markers, then perhaps that should be factored into your tuition. Most graduate students are 21 years old when they enter, and have decided on a career path they will be committed to for at least more than a few years. At that stage, your choices have been made, you can be expected to make your decisiosn based on the full information available to you. You know that you will pay this much for this type of education for this type of future financial and professional return. If you make that decision against another (for example, as I did when I went to law school rather than political science or English graduate school)--well, you pay for your choices.

But at the undergraduate level, to drill in this instrumentalist, utilitarian view of education---ehhh, I'm iffier. I don't think it sends the right signals, and I don't think it produces any good outcomes. Kids will always change and mess up, and they'll just be paying for it more. Worse, they'll feel locked into their choices, and won't take those years to truly explore and have fun--learning new things on the way, or new subjects that might point them to alternate and heretofore unexplored career paths. Once you go to grad school and get your first real job, it's real enough--let the kids explore and take some art classes. Have fun in college, as it may be your last chance to have such intellectual breadth.

Plus, dilettantes are great at dinner parties.


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