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Education and Value

October 5, 2012

The Washington Post published an interesting article today on a new database from the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia  that measures and compares the income of graduates from universities in Virginia across schools and majors. There are a few big pieces of data missing from the database: The population of students who went right to graduate school is excluded, as are people who went into federal service and the military, nor does it control for variations in cost of living across Virginia. Nonetheless, this database still contains a massive amount of important data, and it’s something that will likely help shape the future of undergraduate admissions and concentration of majors across the state–and probably across the country.

There was one part of the article that made me uneasy, though:

“Students and their families should have this information at their fingertips so they can make better-informed decisions about where to enroll, what to major in and how much debt they might comfortably take on relative to their likely earnings,” Mark Schneider, vice president of the nonprofit American Institutes for Research, told Congress last month.

This quote is bittersweet. Half of me agrees with it, but the other half believes there’s a better solution to solving the bang-for-your-buck education-career quandary without shoving everyone into one particularly successful major at one university that’s particularly good at that one major. The supply/demand/price considerations of that are daunting. Maybe it might be more sensible to, I don’t know, equalize pay across various majors instead of pushing students into certain majors over others. Just a thought, but that requires changing normative values of some degrees over others, right? The irony of this previous sentence is that I’m using sociological jargon that I got from my degree at a Virginia school to analyse this phenomenon, knowing full-well that sociology majors are probably not the lucrative-earners from Virginia schools.

My larger hope for this study is what I’ve mentioned above: allowing more than just a few degrees to valuable while the rest are tossed by the wayside. But I also hope that this study delves a bit more into nuance away from just majors and schools and income. There are particular skills that all employers are looking for these days, and these skills aren’t necessarily tied to specific majors. Maybe a degree in computer science from Virginia Tech is very valuable in terms of income, but maybe a psychology degree from William and Mary is also very valuable–as long as the person with that degree has also taken one or two classes learning HTML and Java.

Once more data are plugged into this database, we’ll be able to see trends forming on schools, majors, and success rates. But hopefully we’ll be able to see deeper trends: what do these majors have in common? What does this school have that’s better than the other school with the same program? Are General Education Requirement classes creating more well-rounded students because they give everyone a background in science and math? I guess we’ll see soon enough.

In the meantime: learn how to program in any code–even if you’re not a CompSci major. Trust me.

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