Reviews | Regret for college majors has little to do with majors

(Washington Post staff illustration; images by iStock)
(Washington Post staff illustration; images by iStock)

Regrets, I had some… as many who majored in languages, literature, history, art, religion, etc., apparently did.

Earlier this month, the Post’s “Department of Data” published a startling article on higher education. According to a recent Federal Reserve survey, The Post reported, 37% of college graduates — nearly 2 in 5 — regret their chosen field of study, including nearly half in the humanities and arts. (Engineers reported the lowest regret rates, at 24%).

These data, on the face of it, reflect the prevailing conversation around the value of college and the need for more students to move into “hands-on” fields of study such as those under the STEM umbrella, or to move on to more vocational training.

But while the results were eye-catching, the emphasis on choosing the major was a major mistake. After all, the difference between the highest and lowest regret rates isn’t really that big. And “vocational and technical training” was the third most missed field of study.

Even if the “lazy baristas” who majored in “queer pet literature” (thanks, Senator Ted Cruz) had learned to code instead, they still have a 1 in 3 chance of wishing they had done something else.

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The truth is that in all areas, what really underlies regret is debt.

Dive deeper into the Federal Reserve report and one quote stands out: “Perceptions of higher education are tied to whether individuals had to borrow for their education and whether the returns from their education were sufficient to repay their student loans. “.

It’s the poor return on investment – or a return on investment that falls short of expectations – that causes the greatest dissatisfaction.

The Federal Reserve report adds, “Student borrowers with unpaid debt were…twice as likely as those who paid off their debt to say that the costs of their education outweigh the benefits.

Americans have long been sold on the idea that college is a middle-class one-way ticket — or the cost of admission to stay there. But what if you pay the very expensive fare and you don’t arrive at the promised destination?

Regret is the natural result.

When higher education becomes a financial albatross rather than a launchpad to success, its value can of course seem questionable. But this raises at least two types of questions. The Practice: How Do We Solve the High Cost of College Education? And the philosophy: in education, how do we define “success” and “usefulness” in the first place? What is an education really for and how do we decide which areas of study are “valid”?

The debate over the first question has become particularly heated since President Biden announced his plan last month to write off hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt. Some opponents argue (correctly) that loan cancellation will only work if combined with financial reforms of the higher education system, and that a more forward-looking policy targeting costs is needed to ensure that the number of borrowers does not continue to grow. Suggestions range from the light-hearted — doubling the maximum Pell Grant — to the aggressive: requiring colleges to help pay off delinquent student loans.

Others say loan forgiveness should not be given at all. Which brings us to the second question about how to improve regret – and back to the college conundrum.

Presenting the results of the Federal Reserve survey as a “choosing the right major” story reinforces the idea that ROI is the only thing that matters. Some may be different.

In a democracy whose success depends on the discernment of its members, shouldn’t the goal of higher education be something – well – upper than individual financial success?

“Preparing every citizen to choose wisely and enabling them to choose freely are the primary functions of schools in a democracy,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said years before signing the GI Bill and essentially reinventing American higher education.

According to this ideal, students should be citizens, not just consumers. And while choosing the right major can help define a vocation, part of the process should be understanding that vocation in the context of the wider society.

An IT specialist could find themselves in a highly technical role. But the questions raised in the field – about ethics, creativity, our technological future – require more than technical know-how; they require the ability to think broadly and critically. Philosophy students may not spend the rest of their lives immersed in ancient texts, but the investigative practices they absorb become applicable to an endless array of real-life circumstances.

A field of study cannot be judged simply by projected income after graduation – the question of how it shapes the student is also relevant. But these ideas will fall through as long as debt is a major concern. And students will continue to regret their decisions, whether they major in econometrics or, indeed, in English.

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