Matching Degrees to Jobs Adds Up to Much Higher Lifetime Earnings
We've heard that college is one of the best personal investments; that a degree is a ticket to a better job or career; and even that a bachelor's degree is worth $1 million in added lifetime earnings compared with a high school degree.
But we're also aware that today's graduates struggle to find jobs and are in such serious debt that they can't launch their lives.
Recent graduates often wonder whether all the money and time they spent pursuing degrees were worthwhile.
Meanwhile, employers across the nation are having difficulty filling millions of jobs because of a mismatch in the skills students have and the skills employers need. As a result, we have people without jobs and jobs without people.
Discussions about the value of college need to focus on enabling students to make informed choices that lead to well-paying careers and meaningful lives. This means choosing the right college and the right major.
While students have every right to pursue their passions, they should also have information to see what their future might look like if they do.
For example, what kind of life could they support financially if they major in early childhood education? What about psychology? How do those options compare with a career in math? And is there any difference if students graduate with biology degrees from one college compared with another?
Unfortunately, we can't predict the future. But data reveal a lot about what is likely to happen in the labor market after graduation.
And data are especially valuable if they reveal how prior graduates of specific programs at different colleges are faring in the marketplace.
We may end up with fewer anthropology majors, but we may find ourselves with more employed individuals who are happy with their professional and personal lives.
Consider some concrete state data from College Measures, an organization focused on using data to improve higher education in the United States.
In Texas, 10 years after completing their studies, students who earned master's degrees in music, fine arts or English have lower median earnings than the average student with an associate's degree—and an average annual wage that is about half that of an associate's graduate with a degree in electromechanical maintenance.
In Tennessee, a graduate with a bachelor's degree in psychology, one of the state's most common majors, makes around $40,000 a year less than a bachelor's graduate in computer or electrical engineering.
In Colorado, a student from the Community College of Aurora with a certificate in fire protection, which takes less than one year to complete, can expect to earn $865,000 more over his or her work life compared with a high school graduate.
One pattern is evident even in this small set of examples—there are many associate degree programs, especially those that teach technical skills, that have a very high payoff.
But what's the point of having a well-paying job if the work makes you miserable?
Gallup has polled working graduates to gauge their job satisfaction and engagement in their communities. It has found that there are no differences in satisfaction levels of associate's graduates compared with bachelor's graduates.
Yes, college can be a difficult choice. Students often make choices because of friends, sports or location—or they may choose the most prestigious school because they think it guarantees better post-graduation outcomes.
But truthfully, it doesn't always work out that way. Students, and the growing adult learner community, may find themselves spending less on a degree that will pay more dividends in the long run.
And all those who are thinking about making this commitment of time and money have a right to know if their selected pathway ends in the life they envision both financially and emotionally.
At a minimum, information about outcomes needs to be in front of all students as they consider one of the most consequential decisions of their lives.
This op-ed was originally published in The Janesville Gazzette.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Mark Schneider is the president of College Measures, a national education policy organization. Cheryl Oldham is a senior vice president of the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation. And Brandon Busteed is executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup. The first tool, specifically made for Coloradans, is available at www.LaunchMyCareerColorado.org.