the ROI for philosophy

In Monday’s Washington Post, Jon Marcus writes that “one of the most basic measures of student success” is whether a degree in a particular subject “will provide [graduates] with the gainful employment they need to make it worth the price.” As an example of a bad outcome, he notes that “a philosophy degree from Oberlin costs $142,220 and graduates two years later make $18,154, on average.”

This fact comes from a study by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREO), which “conclude[s] that more than a quarter of programs — including most of those in art, music, philosophy, religion and psychology — leave students financially worse off than if they’d never enrolled.” I’ll raise a few methodological questions later, but first–how should we think about the values at stake here?

Preston Cooper of FREO writes:

This isn’t to say that lower-earning majors are worthless. Society needs artists and musicians. But low incomes for these majors signal a supply-demand mismatch. Universities are producing too many art majors and too few engineering majors relative to the number of jobs available in each of these fields. As a result, employers bid up the wages of engineers while surplus artists flood the labor market. The answer is not to eliminate low-earning majors nationwide, but to reduce their scale.

Many (not all) art majors want to be artists, and if artists’ earnings are very low, that suggests a problem. One solution would be to reduce the number of art majors. Another would be to expand society’s demand for artists (which doesn’t necessarily imply government funding for arts, although that could be one strategy). A third response is to expect artists to tolerate low pay–as we have long done. Which solution we prefer depends on how important we think art is for the society as a whole.

Liberal arts majors are different. Few philosophy majors, for instance, ever enter the job market for philosophy. They end up as lawyers, k-12 educators, business people, founders of LinkedIn–and of course, the proverbial taxi drivers who can quote Kant. The purely economic question is not whether we are producing too many historians, philosophers, and literary critics, but whether a liberal arts education has sufficient value in the general job market.

If philosophy majors get good jobs, that is because employers value clear writing and good reading skills, or because completing a liberal arts degree signals “cultural capital” and membership in an elite.

If, on the other hand, the data show that fields like history and philosophy produce low wages, that suggests two significant problems. First, if majoring in these disciplines is financially costly, they will be luxury goods that only wealthy families can afford–which is bad for the disciplines and unfair to young people of other backgrounds. Second, if we assign most of the society’s work of historical and philosophical inquiry and art criticism (etc.), to professors of those subjects, and if the number of jobs for professors is affected by the number of majors in their disciplines, then these social functions will be limited. We won’t get a very impressive culture under those circumstances.

We need philosophical inquiry, historical depth, cross-cultural understanding, and aesthetic excellence. Those ideals would not, by themselves, justify liberal arts majors that turn out to be costly for individuals. After all, there are other ways for a society to inquire into philosophical questions than to educate a very small number of undergraduates as philosophy majors. I am especially interested in strengthening the liberal arts outside of academia. (See a way forward for high culture.) We could consider organizing undergraduate education in ways that did not depend on majors. However, as long as we are not actually implementing any alternative strategy for producing excellent forms of culture, then poor financial returns to liberal arts majors would be a problem.

But is the empirical finding correct? The lifetime returns for a philosophy degree vary enormously by institution. According to the FREO study, majoring in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania would net you a handsome $1,250,711 over your lifetime, but a philosophy degree from Loyola University Chicago would cost you $419,352 compared to not having a degree at all. From those two examples, one might hypothesize that philosophy pays at highly prestigious institutions, but if that’s a trend, it admits much variation. Philosophy majors from Illinois State do pretty well (ROI = $197,864), while graduates of the excellent NYU department are $259,265 worse off for having obtained a BA. This looks like noise.

One solution would be to combine the people with a given major from all universities. Apparently, 80% of philosophy & religious studies programs have negative returns if you remove financial aid and assume that students must pay the whole cost. But with a variance among philosophy programs of nearly $1.7 million–from very profitable to very costly–I am somewhat skeptical about the meaning of this aggregate statistic.

Also, the FREO study assumes (with some grounding in previous research) that 80% of the benefit of a graduate degree over a BA is attributable to the graduate degree. But it could be that majors in subjects like philosophy help students to obtain valuable professional degrees next. If that is true, the study underestimates their economic returns.

In any case, the economic question is not the only one to consider. To me, the really important question is how our society as a whole addresses ethical, interpretative, aesthetic, and conceptual matters. Offering liberal arts majors and using the revenue to fund scholarship in those disciplines is only one model. It may be a flawed one. But if it is flawed, we need better ways to accomplish the task.

See also: rationales for private research universities; the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; David Brooks/Pierre Bourdieu; what kind of a good is education?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.