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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

College is an 'expensive gamble' for the artsy and the unprepared

College is seen as an "expensive gamble" by many Americans, concludes a recent Public Agenda survey. Half say college "is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities." Skeptics include half of young people with degrees. Furthermore, two-thirds of Americans "view higher education as stuck in the past and unable to meet the needs of today’s students."

Student at the New England Conservatory of Music

Postsecondary education is required for most jobs that provide a path to the middle class, writes Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce. But choosing a certificate or degree path is risky. Some programs leave graduates worse off than when they started.

At 52 percent of colleges, a majority of enrollees don't earn any more than high school-only workers six years after they began their studies, writes Ron Lieber in the New York Times. That includes dropouts, not just graduates. After 10 years, a majority of students earn no more than high school graduates at 29 percent of colleges.

Those numbers come from a study three years ago by Third Way, which Lieber calls a "center-left thinktank." Here's a school-by-school spreadsheet. Author Michael Itzkowitz used data from the U.S. Education Department's College Scorecard, which tracks people who received federal student aid of any kind and were employed and not enrolled in school six years after entering college. Itzkowitz compared earnings to the average income for a high school-only worker, then $28,000 a year.

Music and art schools did poorly. "At the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, 48 percent of the people were earning more than a high school graduate six years after enrolling, according to the data that the Third Way study used," writes Lieber.

Unselective colleges often enroll poorly prepared students who have trouble completing degrees or turning low-tech degrees into good jobs.

At Grambling State University in Louisiana, only 43 percent of enrollees "are outearning high school graduates six years later."

Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. is selective, yet does little better at 46 percent.

“The majority of our students come and leave because they want to be activists, artists, educators or entrepreneurs,” said Edward Wingenbach, Hampshire’s president. “None of those career paths have early income success.”
. . . He pointed to research that shows that by age 40, people who choose liberal arts degrees like the ones Hampshire offers see their incomes catch up to those who majored in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Actually, the research looked at people who majored in history or the social sciences (which includes economics), not all liberal arts majors. They were more likely than STEM majors to go into lucrative jobs in management, business and law. So Hampshire's entrepreneurs may prosper, but probably not its activists and artists.

Hampshire, then brand new, rejected me. I think they thought I was too conventional to be a good fit. Years later, I became friends with a woman my age who'd loved Hampshire. I told her my story. "You would have hated it," she said.

Colleges and universities that leave students with debt they can't repay aren't held accountable, warns the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which proposes new measures to link student debt with post-college earnings.

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