The Atlantic recently published an article titled “These U.S. Colleges and Majors are a Big Waste of Money.” We noticed the article being posted on Facebook and shared on Twitter at a fairly rapid pace. Unfortunately, neither the article’s authors nor those sharing the article provided any context and this resulted in yet another negative story about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Five of the top eleven “biggest wastes” were HBCUs, although the author Derek Thompson didn’t point to this fact.
From our perspective, there are a number of problems with The Atlantic’s list:
First, college outcomes cannot be measured solely by income. Of course no one would argue that being able to work post graduation is important. Nor would one argue that a college education is a large monetary investment that should be taken lightly or entered into flippantly for students or their families. However, this capitalism-tinged, simplistic, business model approach to an individual’s higher education leaves much to be desired and many unanswered questions.
The top 5 colleges on the “biggest waste” list are HBCUs and small public institutions. PayScale, on whose data the article is based, looks at the cost of the institution and the income of graduates 20 years out based on self-reported income. However, the institution’s cost is based on sticker price and not actual price. Let’s take a deeper look at this number and the students that are paying it. The top 5 institutions on the “biggest waste” list looked this way:
Average Net Price After Grants
% Pell Recipients Among Freshmen
% Pell Recipients Among Undergrads
(Source: Education Trust, 2011; * HBCU)
The top 5 “Most Valuable Colleges” stacked up in this way.
(Source: Education Trust, 2011)
Clearly there is a difference in not only what students at these institutions are actually paying, but also the financial background of the students who attend. Those students in the “biggest waste” colleges are substantially poorer. To be fair, the article does make clear that the tuition costs of the “Least Valuable Institutions” are based on out of state prices. However, the number of out of state students at these institutions pales in comparison to in state students.
Second, although the author does caution readers to understand how market demands and using self-reported income bring pause to the use of this data, the article was published nonetheless and the information was put forth to be consumed. The higher education landscape contains a variety of institutions and these institutions serve a diverse population of students with diverse interests, talents, and desires. In an elementary and secondary education environment that needs more talented, dedicated, diverse teachers for the education of our children, implying that being an education major at the state school you can afford to attend is a “risk” is problematic. To downplay the access and opportunities that many of these small public institutions offer low-income, first generation, and underrepresented minority students based on admittedly sketchy data is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous.
Weighing the costs of an institution is important in college choice decisions. To say otherwise would be misleading. But, to place a major and more importantly a college’s value squarely on the shoulders of how much money a selected group of graduates make, particularly when you are pitting liberal arts and comprehensive institutions against research and STEM heavy institutions (STEM graduates already starting at a higher base salary than most degrees), is a disservice to not just the institutions’ contributions but the students who go there, have gone there, and plan to go there in the future. Students and their families should make the best decisions for themselves and their futures and we should help them. But let’s make sure our help includes the full bevy of information and that we see value as a full spectrum and not merely a bottom line.
Dr. Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions. Felecia Commodore is a Ph.D. Candidate in the GSE and also a research assistant in the PCMSI.
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