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Choose College Carefully for Return on Investment

By Walt Gardner — December 11, 2017 2 min read

High school seniors today could be the last to apply to college without specific data about what the return on their investment is likely to be (“Want to Search Earnings for English Majors by College? You Can’t,The New York Times, Dec. 2). That’s because multiple bills have been introduced which will change the rules contained in the 2008 Higher Education Act.

If the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has its way, students who borrow money for their education from the federal government will lose their privacy because they have already offered up personal financial information when they applied for financial aid in the first place. Community colleges and large public universities support the measure. Private colleges and universities oppose it.

I think the bill is a step in the right direction. Although a college education was never intended solely as a way of getting a well-paying job after graduation, it is a major consideration. When parents spend up to $75,000 a year at the most selective schools, they are entitled to know what they can reasonably expect in return. I realize that traditional liberal arts majors will take a hit, since they have not been shown in the short-run to result in high-paying positions. But that’s something only parents and students should be able to decide.

There’s another factor that is given short shrift in the matter. There’s a difference between training and education: Education deals with ideas and concepts, while training deals with techniques. Although they often overlap, they are fundamentally different. I see colleges and universities increasingly being converted into training institutions. Frankly, I don’t blame them for doing so. It’s a question of supply and demand. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s, tuition was quite reasonable. As a result, students were not as concerned about what they majored in as they are today. Yes, there were those who were enrolled in the Wharton School and in the schools of engineering, but most majored in the liberal arts. It’s a totally different story now.

Which is why I continue to urge high schools to give vocational education far greater respect (“The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone,” The Atlantic, January/February 2018). Students spend countless hours studying subjects with little, if any, relevance to the modern labor market. When the cost of college was affordable, students had the luxury of studying whatever tickled their fancy. But that is now an option only for the most affluent.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.