Bruce's Blog

Jan. 23, 2014

Should Western direct its efforts (and funds) toward the majors that lead to higher paying jobs?

I do encounter the view that we should do precisely that. Usually, rather forcefully expressed.  Always well-meaning. Sometimes citizens. Sometimes from civic leaders. Yesterday it was from a legislator I was speaking with in Olympia.

At the state level, there is the understandable view that the public's university should provide graduates that make the greatest contribution to the state's overall well-being.

And, the view is also rooted in concerns about the individual student. With tuition rising and —more so elsewhere than at Western — with student debt increasing, people are rightly concerned about graduates' abilities to pay off loans and afford a reasonable lifestyle.

I have several standard responses.  It begins with recognizing that, with students now paying for 70% of the costs of instruction, they (and much less so the state of Washington) are the consumers we must most pay attention to.  We need to respond to the informed choices that those, footing almost all the bill, make about how they want to prepare for their futures.

The assertion that we determine our outputs comes more often from the right than the left.  So, I am sometimes tempted to point out: In responding to our students' demands, we are echoing the genius of free enterprise - collective welfare being maximized through the unfettered decision making of self-interested individuals.  Put differently, we don't want to go down the road of the centrally planned economy .  After all, there is a reason why they call it the former Soviet Union.  Centrally planned economies do not work.

There is also the simple fact that we are not a manufacturing industry that begins with uniform raw product coming in one end and, in response to shifting market prices, some fluctuating but optimal mixture of widgets and wadgets coming out the other end.

Our "inputs" are not homogenous.  Students come to us with widely different interests and abilities, no two students the same.  And, most importantly, they arrive with or, we hope, while here discover their professional and intellectual passions.  And, that is what will drive their choice of major and their choices of the five or more careers that they are likely to follow over the course of their lives.

A person who is intellectually driven to major in X will likely be mediocre as a major in Y even if we had the power to determine what a student is to major in.  And, of course, we have no such power.  Fortunately.

And, for me the most critical point: it's not just about wages.  We know that empirically from the research on "happiness" and human satisfaction. Or, as I like to put it: it's not truly higher education unless it is put to higher purposes.

Such have been my responses.  And, I know they are largely inadequate: far too abstract for those with very real and understandable concerns about students and debts and the next generation's ability to afford the lifestyles of their parents.

Then, this morning, I saw a study that compared earnings of college graduates who majored in the liberal arts to those who majored in a professions.  You may be surprised by the findings.  In early years, those majoring in the professions earned a bit more, but in later years the liberal arts majors were earning more, on average, than were those who had majored in the professions.

Now, this study was not done by some "friends of the liberal arts" society.  It was done by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.  That outfit does know how to crunch numbers.  They have no axes to grind that I can think of.  And, they have pretty good data sets.

So, the next time I am advised (sometimes told) just what majors we should offer, I have a more concrete way to respond.  It would go something like this.

Hmmm, you want us to concentrate on the better paying career paths?  Well it certainly would make my job easier if we boosted our liberal arts majors and scaled back on the professions.  After all the liberal arts tend to be less expensive.  In fact, our lower cost liberal arts majors subsidize the higher cost majors in the professions and STEM areas.

Right now, student demand is moving toward science-based fields.  If we capped that, I would not have to be constantly finding more funds to solve course bottleneck problems in higher demand, higher cost areas.  Heck, if we only had to educate those cheaper liberal arts majors that lead to the better paying careers, we might even be able to cut tuition.

But, do you think that's fair to those whose passions drive them to the professions: to be health care professionals ... or engineers?  Shouldn't they be allowed those options even if the long-term pay prospects are not quite as great?  After all, it's not just about incomes.

All said with a smile, of course.  Because it simply comes down to this :  We don't try to cover all the fields.  But, in the fields we do cover -- be they liberal arts or professions -- our students will get the best undergraduate education available in the state.  We trust the academic choices our students make as being most appropriate for them in their circumstances; we endeavor to adjust Western's capacity accordingly; our graduates get jobs; and, with 90% of our students coming from Washington and because we know our students' commitments, we know our state will be the great beneficiary of Western alums who do put their higher education to higher purposes.  Whatever their undergraduate major.

My best,


Page Updated 01.24.2014