What’s A College Education Worth? (Part 1)

I’ve suddenly seen several articles in newspapers and online discussing the value of a college education. Ron Wyden, one of Oregon’s most respected political figures, has called on colleges to provide undergraduates with statistics about employment and income prospects for various academic majors. In other words, if you’re going to invest all that money in a college education, you ought to have a sense of what kind of future you’ll have—or won’t have—when you get your degree.

Well and good. I believe that college students, graduate and undergraduate, should have accurate information about the careers they’re preparing for. On the other hand, “accurate” is a funny word. I majored in English. One year after graduation, my prospects were bleak. Forty-five years after graduation, I’d have to say that my college studies gave me the kind of life most people dream about. So is it a bad idea to major in English, philosophy, comparative literature, French, anthropology, etc? Is it a good idea to major in engineering, business, computer science, nursing, or other areas that lead to specific careers?

Well, that depends. To quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”

My brilliant cousin Richard majored in physics at Harvard. This was in the sixties at the height of the space program. Everyone told him that he could write his own ticket as a physicist. He completed all the coursework for a doctoral program in physics. Then, just as he was beginning his dissertation, the bottom dropped out of the space program. We’d put a man on the moon. We didn’t have to impress the Soviets. The costs of the war in Vietnam war were rising astronomically. Funding for physics stopped. Physicists were a dime a dozen. Richard ended up teaching physics in a Chicago high school. (That’s not where he stayed. He later went into advertising with great success.)

I, with my  Engish degree, was also teaching. With Richard’s “practical degree” and my “worthless” one, we both ended up in the same place and we both ended up doing pretty well in life. So is it better to major in Physics or English? You tell me.

Here’s another tale.

My college friend Steve majored in Electrical Engineering. (My college, Lafayette, had a strong engineering component. Many of my friends, as well as Donald and Frank, my two roommates, were engineers.) It was an eminently practical choice. Steve’s dad owned an electrical supply business. An electrical engineering degree on top of the skills Steve learned working for his dad during summers would give him everything he needed to take over the firm when his father retired.

Ah, but the best laid schemes…

Steve and I graduated in 1967. By then, his dad’s business had failed. His parents divorced. His mother was living in a small apartment. His dad had remarried. As Steve told me a couple of years ago, “I graduated—and I had no home. There was no business for me to go into. So I thought, since I have no ties or obligations, why not have an adventure?”

Steve volunteered for the Peace Corps. Because of his electrical engineering background, he found himself assigned to West Africa, teaching young men how to repair small engines. He was the only American in a hundred miles. He loved it. He became an Peace Corps administrator and later went on to work in other development projects. Over the years he’s worked all over Africa. He feels more at home in Africa than in the US.

Was majoring in electrical engineering a good choice? Absolutely! But not in the way anyone could have predicted.

I have more of these stories. I’ll keep posting them.



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