College and Student Debt: Part One: The Major Trade-off

by Nathan on November 17, 2011

One of the biggest concerns raised by those involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially the younger people, is the cost of college tuition, room and board, and other related expenses. In one of the movement’s most iconic photos, a young woman laments in a sign “I am a student. When I graduate I will have (over) $100k in student loans, as will much of my generation. I believe that education is the key to responsible and productive citizenship! So what happens when no one can afford it?”

Indeed, it is almost breathtaking to see how steeply, and steadily, college tuition has risen over the past few decades. To pay for anticipated college costs, parents have begun saving for college when their children are newborns. Some students, however, aren’t as fortunate and have to pay their own way, taking out tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars to get an education at the school of their choice. The specific causes of such tremendous tuition increases have been dwelt with at length elsewhere and need not be repeated today. The focus of this essay is about facing the reality that, as a college student or potential college student, you are probably going to graduate with a lot of debt. And that within six months of graduation you’re going to have to start paying off that debt somehow.

We are, therefore, going to examine – in a several part series – what you can do while in college to best position yourself to pay off your debt after college.

Part-One: The Major Trade-off

For some people, choosing a major is easy. They arrive at school knowing exactly what they want to do. Their parents were lawyers, for instance, so they decide to major in history or political science and then attend law school to become a lawyer like their parents. But for most other students, choosing a major is a not as straightforward.

So to break it down simply, there are two basic types of college majors: liberal arts and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

Liberal arts majors are those like history, literature, philosophy, classics, language, etc. In those majors, you will read, discuss, and write about the great ideas, works, and events from throughout history. In doing so, you will learn written and oral communication skills, how to research properly, and wide interpersonal skills.

Liberal arts degrees in the United States, one hopes, revolve around the Great Books of the Western Canon, which are at the heart of Western Civilization.

The questions at the root of contemporary events have more-often-than-not already been discussed in the likes of Plato or Aristotle. The character, role, and influence of political rhetoric, a major discussion point during and after the 2008 Presidential Election, was, for instance, discussed by Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias. Socrates questioned the virtue of the orator in a democracy. People are easily charmed by smooth, florid, and flattering language, Socrates reasoned, and thus are susceptible to the designs of a skilled rhetorician. But that is the whole point! Gorgias argued. The question of rhetoric in statesmanship is still one that is ever poignant today.

The nature of political power in the international state system was eloquently written about by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. One of Thucydides’ greatest insights into statecraft was that wars are fought for three reasons: self-interest, fear, and honor. That those reasons are still applicable today has been very persuasively argued by the great Yale historian Donald Kagan.

And the struggle for power within a state between conflicting groups was written about by Titus Livy, almost 2000 years before Marx was even born. In Livy’s histories of the Roman Republic, the lower class plebs and the upper class patricians are constantly bickering and fighting over resources and influence in policy – that is unless they had a common enemy to fight.

A liberal arts degree will lay the foundation of learning for the rest of your life. You will have a solid grounding in many of the most important issues that have influenced our culture, politics, economy, and civilization to this day.

The problem, however, with a liberal arts degree is that they typically don’t pay well once you graduate. In fact, I have not been able to find one list of top paying majors after graduation that has even one liberal arts degree represented.

The reason this is so is because when you graduate with a liberal arts degree, you are not a practitioner of a certain craft. When you graduate with a philosophy degree, no one in their right mind is going to believe that you’re a philosopher, who practices the craft of philosophy. Or even a historian with a mere undergraduate history degree. To find a job after college that pays well – where you can begin paying back your massive debt load – you’re going to need to have a major where you can practice a craft. And to practice a craft, you’re going to need to have a STEM degree. [Note: STEM has oftentimes been extended to include business management, of which I will conform.]

STEM graduates come out of college with special training in a particular craft, or are in the position to begin the next phase in their craft, such as architects or doctors. But those who graduate into the workplace with such a four-year degree can be engineers, accountants, marketers, computer programmers, construction site managers, financial analysts, pilots, among others. These are the type of degrees that pay well. When I graduated with my degree in industrial engineering, I believe the going rate for entry-level engineers was around $57,000 / year. And there are some, such as petroleum engineering, that pay tens of thousands more than that.

With a STEM degree, you will learn how to think critically and objectively (that is, scientifically) by gathering and analyzing data to make informed decisions in real-world settings. You will learn how to design things or do things that can have an immediate and tangible impact on society, such as a designing and erecting a bridge or performing an open heart surgery.

The problem with STEM degrees is that they are very difficult and oftentimes boring. In fact, a recent New York Times article noted that “roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.” The Times concluded that notoriously difficult freshmen classes are particular deterrents to completion of such degrees. The net effect of this is that it makes STEM graduates in much greater demand, and thus much greater entry salaries.

Another problem is that a STEM degree can pigeon-hole you into one specific craft. An accountant, for instance, will not be able to switch easily into engineering or programming. It may, in fact, be difficult to even switch into finance or advertising with an accounting degree. This is a trade-off that is inherent in learning a specific craft.

So herein lies the dilemma of what type of major to choose, that of a liberal arts or STEM. The liberal arts degree will lay a foundation for the rest of your life. But it won’t pay your bills or debt after college. A STEM degree will pay your bills, but it is limiting in the breadth of learning. You are only learning one craft after all, so what if you decide a few years down the road this isn’t for you?

What the solution might entail, if it is possible, is to double major in one liberal art and one STEM. That way you could have the best of both worlds. As Professor Walter Russell Mead explains “What the STEM classes and the classic humanities have in common is this: they require students to master a coherent body of knowledge and learn clear thinking and accurate expression.  There are many ‘disciplines’ that don’t do any of that; they encourage mushy thinking about mushy fields.”

By double majoring you will bridge the gap between the immediate reality of your looming student loan debt and the need to have a foundation in the great ideas and works of history. You will graduate with a STEM degree that enables you to practice a craft which will pay a decent salary as well as with one that enables you have a broad understanding of the world you live in.

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