November 2, 2011

Going to university isn’t enough: you need to take the right program

Filed under: Economics, Education, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:04

Alex Tabarrok points out that the widely reported student debt problem is made much worse because students are taking courses that don’t lead to higher-paying jobs:

Over the past 25 years the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has remained more or less constant. Moreover, many of today’s STEM graduates are foreign born and are taking their knowledge and skills back to their native countries.

Consider computer technology. In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering, math and statistics. Few fields have changed as much in recent years as microbiology, but in 2009 we graduated just 2,480 students with bachelor’s degrees in microbiology — about the same number as 25 years ago. Who will solve the problem of antibiotic resistance?

If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math, what are they studying?

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

It’s still true that students who graduate from university will tend to have higher lifetime earnings than their peers who do not get degrees, but there’s a huge difference between the expected earnings from an engineering degree than from a “studies” degree.


  1. Two of my daughters started university, and both decided after one year that it wasn’t for them. Neither one has any debt because they used the money they had in the bank to pay their tuition, while we as parents helped with the cost of books. One of the kids has gone on to Community College to take a program for working in daycare facilities. Again, no debt as she had some money in the bank and she works over the summer and on weekends to make cash for tuition. We helped with the cost of books again, but that was it.

    When it comes down to costs, too many people will borrow what they need for tuition, books and living expenses, and they will not work weekends or over the summer, or so it seems. No wonder they are in so much debt. Also, even when some work weekends and summer they don’t make enough to cover the whole cost, but at least they don’t have to borrow the whole works.

    The most valid point though, is that people will take crap courses to get a crap degree and then bitch, whine and moan that they can only find work at McDonald’s. You would think that they would talk to someone about the prospects of finding work, I wonder who should help them with that? Maybe their parents? Maybe a school guidance Councillor?

    Comment by Dwayne — November 2, 2011 @ 12:34

  2. Maybe a school guidance Councillor?

    I can only offer the old joke: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach become Guidance Counsellors”

    I don’t recall ever having heard that anyone actually benefitted from the guidance they were offered in high school — and several who would have done much worse if they had followed the advice.

    Comment by Nicholas — November 2, 2011 @ 13:05

  3. I don’t recall ever having heard that anyone actually benefitted from the guidance they were offered in high school.

    I got the general advice of ‘get a degree or you’ll flip burgers’ but (to my best recollection) they never sat me down and said ‘Brian what are your interests, you should do X, or Y.’

    The school was big (we graduated over 500 seniors), I was not a jock, a thug, a brain nor outstanding at this or that. Perhaps I just got overlooked, didn’t realize I had an appointment or was supposed to make one to be ‘guided’.

    Mostly what I wanted from high school was to be done with it and get on with life.

    Comment by Brian Dunbar — November 2, 2011 @ 15:40

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