Black graduation caps and the backs of multiple heads

(Not) Doing It for the Money

The American educational system and religion are more closely tied to economics than is readily acknowledged.

By Richard A. Rosengarten|October 13, 2022

The scattershot aspect of my summer reading included an article from the Department of Data in The Washington Post—“The most regretted (and lowest-paying) college majors”—that replicates a predictable pattern in public discussions of undergraduate education.  The patter(n) goes something like this. First the sky is definitely falling on the humanities. Close second: most undergraduates choose their majors on the basis of what they understand to be their potential earning power. Near at hand third (and the ostensible topic of the article): those who do major in the humanities subsequently regret their choice much more than their counterparts who chose a STEM field. That at least is what one finds “above the fold” in the article (and, in most cases, what dominates the conversation). 

Is the sky falling on the humanities? Maybe, but I am skeptical that undergraduates’ choices of majors is the best way to answer the question.  My present College course of 26 includes majors in Economics, Chemistry, Linguistics, Anthropology, History, Computer Science, and English, along with a number of first- and second-year students who are listed on the course roster as undecided. There are also several majors and minors in Religious Studies. Courses on religion tend to be a motley crew (one of my favorites aspects of teaching religion), but most important for this topic is that the choice of major, while interesting, proves not especially useful or telling either for classroom pedagogy or for evaluation. If the roster didn’t give me this information, it would be guesswork for me.

Do most undergraduates choose their major based on its potential earning power? I certainly discern a significant degree of apprehension among students about what they will do next (which strikes me as understandable and probably appropriate for a group who in the overwhelming majority know no lifestyle other than going to school). One way some of them think about what they will do next has to do with money, especially those who will graduate with debt. But I have not seen a close correlation of future plans with the undergraduate major. 

The real divide instead seems to occur not during college but as these students make decisions about what they will do after college. Some definitely perceive a relation between their college major and such post-graduation decisions but the correlation is not, at least in my experience, so widespread as the article implies.

So, if there is not a “perfect storm” that is the decline of the humanities, what are we talking about? Or, better, what should we be talking about? I can think of two points that merit attention and can offer a different angle of approach toward the real issue.

First, undergraduate education—not solely but dramatically at the ostensibly “elite” schools, is not only expensive but bewilderingly so.  Tuition, room, and board at these schools (the “sticker price”) is usually north of $60,000. To be clear, that is per year. And for every student who receives generous financial support there is at least another (likely two or even three) who is paying something close to the full cost of tuition, room, and board. Parents, especially those in the so-called middle class, often encounter guidelines for financial aid that bear too close a resemblance to the Internal Revenue Service’s tax code. The result is classes of undergraduates who are like passengers on an airline flight: no two people are paying the same price to arrive at the same destination. (The analogy of seating to dorm assignments would require another column.) Both the cost and the administration of that cost are, I would suggest, the source of many of the varieties of “regret” felt, in the moment and in retrospect, about undergraduate education.

That said, if the schools do much to impress upon their customers the idea that education is about the money, it is also the case that, at least to date, these flaws in supply seem not to have made much of a dent in demand. Application numbers are high and selectivity rates are low. It is an alliance that makes education another market-based product, and it is a short walk from such an ethos to the idea that education is about the money.

What is to be done? Or, perhaps better, how best to assess and address this state of affairs? We might begin by recalling that the relation of economics to questions of value is longstanding; and that both our educational system and, at least in America, its close ally religion has had a closer relation to economics than these discussions acknowledge. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as articulated in The Wealth of Nations (1776) argues that an efficient economy will lead broadly to a just distribution of wealth and social goods.  The octane level of the fuel in the vehicle that is higher education is specifically calibrated by articulations of this conviction.  Homo academicus and homo economicus are not exactly twins, but they are closer to siblings than we wish to acknowledge. Our failure to recognize this can quickly align them quite closely.

As important is that Smith argued for the “invisible hand” only after he had published a lengthy treatise entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Read together, it becomes clear that the “invisible hand” will only work its magic in a society composed of people whose disposition toward one another is driven by dispositions of mutual regard and consideration, even charity and benevolence. These were for Smith the religious virtues, and without these no economy could truly flourish. 

What we see today, and not only in education, is that the kind of delicate balance that Smith wrought in his prose is not easily maintained without ongoing care and attention. The real regret in higher education is not about the shifting of majors but about the too ready shifting—at least in part fostered by the schools—of a cash-and-carry model for its work. In an environment of independent intellectual curiosity, what undergraduates elect as their major will matter much less than the questions they elect to pursue in the subsequent life they lead in the world. Lowering the sticker price would at least help to mitigate the relation of learning to money. Not incidentally, it would also render "regret" a category for a lifetime rather than for the comparatively shorter span of one’s undergraduate years.  

Featured image: "Graduation caps" by JMaz Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Richard A. Rosengarten

Columnist, Richard A. Rosengarten (PhD’94), is Associate Professor of Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the Divinity School.