“You can’t talk about debt without talking about what the earnings are,” said Schneider of College Measures. “If you’re going to borrow $70,000 and make $20,000, you’ve made a bad financial decision. If you borrow $20,000 and you make $70,000, that’s a great investment.”
Schneider founded College Measures to familiarize the public with the monetary value of college. Using state unemployment and transcript data, his online database catalogs the average starting salaries tied to all majors at public colleges and universities. The most recently released data on Virginia, for example, showed that a bachelor’s degree in information science from the University of Richmond resulted in an average first-year salary of $82,622. By contrast, first-year wages for studio-arts majors at Bridgewater College averaged $20,612. College Measures has produced similar reports for Arkansas and Tennessee; Colorado, Nevada, and Texas are on tap.
Schneider’s numbers are rough, but they give people the tools to compare individual college programs. “How should a state invest money? Say it has three philosophy programs. In one of them, the average salary is $18,000. The other one is $25,000. The other one is $30,000. Maybe that tells you something about the program where students are only making $18,000,” he said.
This kind of reasoning leads to some uncomfortable questions. Must a state-funded university be comprehensive? Does every student have the right to take a philosophy class? How many philosophy majors do we need?
The answers conjure up emotional defenses of liberal-arts degrees, which always fare worse than the technical degrees in these kinds of analyses. Schneider is unapologetic. “Some of the most successful people I know are liberal-arts grads from the Ivy Leagues. And, you know, fine. Awesome. Does that translate to a regional [school] in the middle of Indiana? That’s what we need to know.”
Schneider argues that the higher-education system cannot continue functioning as it does now, with professors lecturing to smart kids who then work hard and graduate because they’re smart, not because the professor has given them a new set of employable skills. “The traditional attitude toward faculty was, ‘I’m dispensing knowledge. Learn it or don’t learn it.’ ‘Do I know if you graduated or don’t graduate? I don’t have a clue.’ ‘Do I know if you got a job or didn’t get a job? I don’t care,’ ”he said. “It’s all paid for by taxpayers, very heavily subsidized, and I don’t think it can go on much longer.”
As long as Obama continues to emphasize workplace skills, he can open up the conversation about tying higher education more closely to workplace needs and about encompassing adult learners. The change will be gradual, because the higher-education system is diverse and job-training dollars are scarce. The good news is that no one disputes the intrinsic value of skills development, which means the policymakers don’t need to convince anyone that it’s a good idea. They just need to figure out a way to make it happen.
Arne Duncan: The Education secretary is close to the president and shares his vision of making the United States’ economy competitive through education.
Jill Biden: A former community-college president, the second lady has led the White House’s campaign to promote two-year colleges.
Martha Kanter: The undersecretary of Education focuses on higher-education issues, including financial aid. She provides information to Congress on Pell Grants and other student-aid programs.
Patty Murray: The Democratic senator from Washington state authored the legislation to update the long-ignored job-training system.
Easing debt: The student-loan interest rate is scheduled to double in July, but the White House and Congress are likely to extend the current 3.4 percent rate for at least another year. It has proven politically unpopular to let the rate double, as required by law.
No Child Left Behind Act: The Education Department’s state waiver program for schools has taken the pressure off lawmakers to reauthorize the George W. Bush-era K-12 law.
Dislocated-worker aid: Obama’s plan for an assistance program for dislocated workers could be put in place by lawmakers, but it will lack for funding. The current slate of job-training programs is subject to automatic cuts if Congress and the White House fail to reach a budget deal.
This is the second in a series of stories on the challenges facing President Obama in his second term. It appeared in print as "The Jobs Pipeline."
This article appears in the Dec. 1, 2012, edition of National Journal.