On Beginnings: Part 7

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.



Educational and vocational statistics can be compiled by many different official or unofficial entities, including private information service companies like Payscale, non-profit, trust-funded research institutions like the Pew Research Center, and government agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the National Center for Education Statistics.

The extrapolations from these statistics can be done by the agencies themselves, but are also done in the open market of public discourse, and in the Great Debate Over the Value of a College Degree, seem to fall under a few general rubrics:  the rift over the utility of any college degree and how to determine such, and another point at which advocates seem to split off into college-specific camps – some espousing the virtues of a more versatile liberal arts education, some suggesting the irrelevance of the liberal arts in a modern world of applied and technical sciences.  The standards of measure are vaguely economic – comparing for instance, median salaries and expected earnings of graduates, projected job growth by sector, and a catalog of accrued assets vs. debt, by field of study.  Since I was a liberal arts major, I naturally take a keen interest in these debates, as I, too, struggle to estimate the value of my degree weighed against my deflated ambitions to join the Big Top.

Consider this article, citing a poll taken by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities which asked respondents to assess whether they thought a college degree was “worth it.”  Methodology notwithstanding, 62% of graduates and 30% of non-graduates said “yes.”  Sounds pretty good!  Until you look at the implications – 38% of graduates, a substantial portion, were apparently not willing to confirm that their degrees were “worth it,” and it is perhaps worth noting this is a larger proportion than the “worth-its” amongst the non-graduates, at least some of whom, we might hazard, didn’t go to college because they already believed the degree would not be worth the money.  In the same article, we read:

“Polling by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that 40 percent of us believe it is common for people to start poor and become rich by dint of hard work. The reality is that 43 percent of people who start out at the bottom of the income ladder never make it out at all, and 70 percent spend their entire lives below the middle rung.

How does college attainment affect that discouraging reality? College graduates were 5.3 times more likely to leave the bottom quintile than non-college graduates.”

The “bottom quintile” is the 20% of workers with the lowest earned incomes, and here it would not be unreasonable to wonder how these quintiles are divided, how many people can find funding for college when they start in the bottom quintile, what proportion this is of the total bottom quintile, to what quintile they ascend, and to what else we might attribute any economic gains.  The overtones are especially interesting in light of this article, discussing the common practice of non-merit-based dispensation to students who do not seem to have an acute financial need.  Some studies estimate and compare the amount of student debt accrued by college graduates, taking into account the additional private loans and credit card debt that many students must heap on top of federal loans in order to meet tuition costs; some studies rate colleges on the basis of the average debts their graduates owe.

A few articles describe the job market that many graduates are facing, regardless of their degree.

One article may suggest that liberal arts are more beneficial as a course of study if one pursues graduate school; another may tout the virtues of a liberal arts education, but advise the aspiring post-bacc to consider whether the higher pay scale will balance out the costs of obtaining a graduate degree.

Many articles discuss the increasingly popular topic of Return on Investment (ROI), offering best and worst by field of study, by college, or by tabulating the current and projected salaries of various graduates who enter their chosen fields.  Return on Investment is a term borrowed from the business sector, where it is one of many metrics used to evaluate the profitability of financial ventures.  ROI, however, does not necessarily indicate, let alone guarantee future performance.  It is just one of many elements investors consider when they weigh risks against potential gains.  A “Good ROI Score” doesn’t add intrinsic merit to a particular school; it’s an assertion of merit based on factors deemed germane by a data-collecting organization.  The presumption seems to be that ascribing a dollar value to a college degree will make it an easier sell to a beleaguered post-Recession generation, who must weigh the risks of insolvency against the promise of an indistinct future advantage in a dynamic job market with ever-shifting emphases  – incidentally the very sort of Magic Theater exasperated humanities professors argue a liberal arts degree prepares one to navigate. 

Part 8 coming today at noon…