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Scoring College Majors’ Earnings Gives Students The Wrong Idea About Who’s Responsible For Their Success


In an effort to “empower” prospective students and their families with information to make better decisions, the U.S. Department of Education is expected to announce a plan to require all U.S. higher education institutions to make data on debt and earnings by major publicly available.

Student debt in the United States recently hit $1.5 trillion, and is a problem that certainly needs to be addressed, but this initiative is not only costly, it further contributes to one of the root causes of the problem: lack of personal responsibility and the fallacy that life comes with guarantees.

The Responsibility for Your Life Choices Is Yours

First, information for return on investment is certainly available and it’s not up to the colleges, universities, and the government to gather and aggregate it for consumers. These institutions are only responsible for delivering what they advertise, which is an education at the listed price.

Students have the freedom to choose what kind of school to attend, whether public, private, or technical, and what to study — the sciences, liberal arts, or a skilled trade. But it’s up to them, the consumers, to do the research on what they are buying. Any other way shifts responsibility away from the individual, where it belongs.

A government-mandated initiative to collect this data is not only unnecessary but reinforces one of the primary factors contributing to this staggering debt problem: the attitude that people are not responsible for the decisions they make on higher and continuing education. Instead, it sends the message that we are entitled to certain outcomes and that, if they fail to come to fruition, we are victims of a faulty product. This view is not only false, it puts too much weight on academic degrees in determining graduates’ financial well-being.

Top-Tier Degrees Do Not Guarantee Success

This leads to the second problem in the Department of Education’s approach to reducing student debt. This initiative advances the problematic myth that life has guarantees that result from following structured steps; that there is a map for life.

Higher education degrees are erroneously viewed as “the” ticket to salary and career goals. This neat and tidy degree-centered view ignores the messiness of real life, like difficult clients, tight deadlines, and unforeseen productivity problems. It also ignores personality factors that have enormous value in the workplace.

Like so many other government programs, this expansion of the scorecard fails to consider factors that make us individuals: personality traits such as likability, creativity, patience, risk-tolerance, confidence, the ability to make decisions, to motivate teams, to mediate conflict, and being a self-starter. The personal characteristics, habits, and skills used to navigate the workplace are just as, if not more important, factors in determining titles, responsibilities, and salaries. Doing well on tests and writing excellent papers is certainly helpful, but these accomplishments don’t necessarily translate into real-world value or success.

Recent discussions of the importance of “emotional intelligence (EI)” in countless business books testify to the fact that degrees have limited value in determining business success. If you can’t meet deadlines, adapt when the unexpected happens, or you irritate your clients and co-workers, your degree — even one that carries a highly scored major from a top school — won’t mean much. Furthermore, at a time when change in nearly all industries is happening faster and faster, a commitment to continuing to learn and ability to adapt is more valuable to than a stagnant degree.

You Are Far More Important Than Your Degree

The plan to expand the College Scorecard puts disproportionate value on degrees themselves. Whether one studies history, psychology, or art history, it’s what that person does — how she behaves, what actions she takes — after she leaves academia that plays a bigger factor in salary and personal debt.

According to a survey from 2015, more than 50 percent of people want to be their own boss. No matter how many classes in entrepreneurship you take, ultimately you have to have an idea and have the boldness to take the risk. In getting a job, career advancement, and making a certain salary, it all comes down to personal agency. Several examples make this point.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP) and the first woman to lead one of Fortune Magazine’s Top 20 companies, studied philosophy and medieval history at Stanford University. Barbara Corcoran, a self-made multimillionaire real estate entrepreneur, earned her undergraduate degree in education from St. Thomas Aquinas College.

It will be interesting to see how majors in philosophy and medieval history score on the forthcoming scorecard, but my guess is that they won’t rank very high. And we all know that degrees in education don’t typically lead to lucrative careers. Regardless, Fiorina and Corcoran got to the top because of their work ethic and willingness to take risk.

Of course, what we study is important, but we should beware placing too high a value on degrees themselves. Degrees should not define or limit us. It’s the decisions and actions we make every day the determine success. Not all English majors will go on to become J.K. Rowling (a multi-millionaire with a BA in French and classics at the University of Exeter) and not every psychologist will become Jordan Peterson (worth $1.5 million). The financial and career success these individuals earned was due to their drive, persistence, passion, dedication, and willingness to take appropriate risks, rather than the content of their degrees.

Classroom learning is certainly important, and degrees represent accomplishment, but far more factors dictate career outcomes. What we study is a means to an end, but we get to determine where we want that end to be and what path or paths we take. Individuals need to get in the captain’s seat and steer our own ships.

This starts with gathering information, making decisions, and learning from missteps. Even then there are no guarantees. The sooner young people learn this truth, the better.