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?

a simulation to teach civic theory and practice

My book entitled What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life will be released in April 2022. It summarizes the concepts and ideas that I believe are most useful for people who want to improve their communities and the world. It is based on many years of teaching undergraduates and advanced graduate students and seasoned practitioners, while studying and promoting civic education in K-12 schools.

Obviously, my list of concepts and how I think about them are completely debatable. But what if we wanted to teach many people some set of such concepts without explaining them all (as in a book or a series of lectures)? Could we teach these ideas experientially, so that students consulted manageable bites of theory as they worked together on civic problems? And could we make the learning scalable, so that students could experience it in many schools, colleges, and community settings?

I am thinking about an online simulation along these lines. …

The setting would be a fictional community–maybe a smallish US city with a declining industrial base and a diverse population. (Other versions could be built with different settings). Players could consult summary statistics about this community at any time, such as its unemployment rate, the ratio of arrests by race, or the number of people using its main park. Those statistics would be affected by the players’ choices and behavior–as well as by random factors beyond their control.

Each player would simulate a fictional character who would have personal characteristics, values, and goals; various roles (e.g., a parent of a child in the public schools; the mayor of the city); some money; and the ability to make menu-driven choices at any moment. These choices would sometimes be affected by other players’ actions. Examples might be expanding or contracting one’s own business, voting for various candidates in a mayoral election, or attending a protest, among others.

There would also be organizations: governmental agencies (such as the school board), private associations, and media platforms.* Players would have roles in these organizations, such as a member, a leader, or a subscriber. They would be able to start new associations and media platforms. Governmental agencies would be able to create new agencies under certain circumstances.

Each organization would be able to make choices, such as how to allocate its resources and govern its assets. It would have rules for making these choices, for determining who belongs and holds various roles, and for changing its own rules. For instance, the members of the school board might be elected, they might make decisions regarding the schools by majority vote, but only the city government could change these rules. Meanwhile, a private association might be structured so that anyone could join and might simply be a space for conversation, with hardly any rules.

Players would not be able to communicate with each other at will. True, in a real city, it might be possible for anyone to get any official’s email address and contact that person. But a senior official is unlikely to give a random person much attention–if any. To simulate the friction and inequality of communication in the real world, players would only be able to contact others through organizations, and each organization would have rules for interaction. For instance, members of the school board would be able to message each other freely. When they were together in a group chat, their messages would be open for anyone to read (simulating a public meeting). They could message all parents on a one-way basis. And they could maintain a message board where parents could post comments for them to read. A protest group or a newspaper would have different rules for communication. This means that if you wanted to influence the mayor, you might have to join an association in which the mayor is active, or persuade the newspaper to cover your issue and hope that the mayor reads messages from the newspaper.

The game would start with characters already holding memberships in organizations, and organizations already having rules. Characters might even have drafts of messages ready to send that would start the business of the community. (For instance, the editor of the newspaper would have almost everyone as a subscriber and would have a draft message ready to send to solicit news tips.) Once the game got underway, characters would begin to change their status in many ways and communicate with each other. As a result of all their choices, the community’s statistics would gradually shift.

Finally, each player would have a student page for work outside the game, such as short written assignments that could be graded. Here the student would also see links to accessible summaries of concepts relevant to current events in the game. For instance, if your character is dealing with a good (such as green space or public safety), you would see a link to a wiki-like entry on types of goods, drawn from Elinor Ostrom, that could inform your behavior and give you material to write about. If your character faces a conflict, you would see a short reading on negotiation. If your character is involved in a protest, you would see an entry on social movements.

I can also imagine a hybrid version, with face-to-face meetings of characters plus “meta-discussion” of issues that arise in the game occurring during class time.

*The organizations would not include for-profit firms or markets. My instinct is that fully simulating an economy would make the game too complex, even though the economy is certainly relevant. The focus would be civil society and the state, with the market somewhat to the side. However, individuals and organizations would have economic choices to make, and some characters would have disproportionate economic influence as business owners or investors. Getting them to make helpful individual choices would often be an important strategy for shifting the community’s outcomes.

three big questions relating to knowledge

I know that the sky is dark and wet today because of input from my senses to my brain. But I know that the earth moves around the sun and that the earth is warming because people have taught me. My sources didn’t use their own senses to learn these things by themselves; they, too, were taught by people–usually mediated via texts or images. This communication often takes places in organized venues like classrooms, books, and newspaper articles. In short, most knowledge is the output of institutions. In turn, institutions are organized, funded, led, regulated, rewarded, interconnected, and governed or self-governed in various specific ways.

I am interested in the following big questions about the social aspect of knowledge:

  1. Knowledge/Power: Because knowledge comes out of institutions, it is naive to think that we can know important truths without the influence of power. At the same time, it is possible to learn truths that are inconvenient to the powerful. Discoveries sometimes alter the distribution of power. And power is not necessarily bad: a democratic people exercises appropriate power when it decides to pour resources into a particular kind of medical research. We should be glad we have capacity to understand our world, and “capacity” is almost synonymous with power. Yet power is not innocent. How does it structure knowledge, and how should it be configured?
  2. Facts/Values: The Logical Positivists held that there were facts, which could be demonstrated; and there were values, which were mere matters of opinion. This distinction is still widely taught and believed, even though it has been shredded by a century of criticism from various angles. The facts we know result from our choices about what to study, which are based in values. It is very hard even to state a factual claim without also making value-claims, if only because the names we use are often loaded. The domains of fact and value are so interconnected that it may be impossible to distinguish them, yet people mix them up in harmful ways, e.g., by claiming that pro- and anti-vaccination positions are equally valid (because they both reflect values), or that police shootings do not exhibit racism because Blacks are not more likely to be shot. What are good ways to bring facts and values together?
  3. General/Particular: We cannot truly grasp the idea that the earth is warming without understanding abstract ideas like the carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect, not to mention more fundamental abstractions like temperature, change, and the idea that the earth is a sphere in space. At the same time, we cannot develop abstractions like the carbon cycle without lots of concrete data. Especially when we are studying human beings, generalities are problematic because they cover up individuality and particularity. But there are no particular facts without more general frameworks. How can we wisely combine the general and the particular?

See also: the progress of science; vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; mixed thoughts about the status of science; what must we believe?; new special issue of The Good Society on reintegrating facts, values, and strategies; etc

college student voting up 14 points in 2020

My colleagues at Tisch College’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education have released their national report on the 2020 election, which is based on voting records of students enrolled at about 1,050 colleges and universities in the United States. As IDHE director Nancy Thomas says in the front-page Boston Globe feature, the turnout increase was “quite stunning.” It was also quite consistent across different types of institutions, fields of study, and demographic groups. For instance, white men, black men, social science or history majors, business majors, students at private liberal arts colleges, and students at public PhD-granting universities all showed increases of between 14 points and 17 points.

The whole report is here.

a conversation with Farah Stockman about American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears

I really enjoyed my conversation yesterday with Farah Stockman, whose new book is moving, insightful, and even suspenseful. She tells the life stories of three workers who were laid off when the Rexnord factory in Indianapolis was shut down, just as Donald Trump was winning the 2016 election.

I asked her versions of these questions:

You recall that your parents used to argue about race. When a waitress was rude, your Black mother would suspect she was being racist; your white father “thought she must be cranky after a long day on her feet.” You say, “I always wondered which one was right. That is why I became a journalist, to talk to the waitress.” I read that sentence as a metaphor for the whole book, and especially for sections like the one where you have a four-hour conversation about race with John—the Trump-voting union guy–after you learn that he displays a Confederate flag in his garage. Can you say more about your impulse to talk to people like the waitress and John? What are you trying to accomplish?

John sees the world in terms of workers vs capitalists. He hates talk of white privilege because he feels oppressed as a worker. He works to make the union fight the company, and he votes for Trump. His wife is more favorable to management. On that basis, he describes her as a “liberal.” He is also surprised when a Republican politician doesn’t seem to favor US workers. Does he see today’s capitalists as the liberals? What is making him feel that way?

Wally is a black man. You say that the first time he gave a “structural” explanation for injustice was when he criticized how the city condemned houses owned by Black people and sold them to white developers. Otherwise, instead of giving structural explanations, he talks about his own responsibility and how he’ll benefit from a positive personality and hard work. I believe in structural explanations, but I can see how they don’t offer much to Wally. He doesn’t have many ways to address structural problems in the society, but he sometimes benefits–precariously — from his own hard work and niceness. Am I understanding him right? And do you think he would have been better off if he had thought more politically and structurally?

College really doesn’t seem to benefit anyone in the book. Several people enroll and rack up debt without getting degrees, or earn degrees that don’t lead to good jobs. They resent college-educated people who are set over them. Shannon says, “I am not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m for the one who will keep good-paying jobs here for us un-educated people that build the parts that make them rich.” Is college good? How could it work better for all?

The book is full of moving moments of solidarity, like when a Mexican worker who will take Shannon’s job pulls her aside and apologizes (233), or when John worries that he might be taking a position away from a Black co-worker, Marlon (289), or when Wally physically embraces a man he has caught sabotaging equipment (214), or—most moving to me—when Wally and his new girlfriend Stacie pray and weep together over his challenges. Factory work can offer solidarity. Unemployment destroys it. Do you see ways to build solidarity, especially across race?

You explore the differences among Shannon, John, and Wally, but also their shared circumstances and culture. And you depict how different their culture is from that of a Harvard-grad reporter who lives in Cambridge, Mass. You are critical of your group (which is also mine) for being out of touch, pretentious, and soft. What should highly educated elites learn from working class Americans?