ROI. Return on Investment. As a psychology professor, I am often asked to justify whether a college-degree—particularly in psychology—is worth the money. That question is often quickly followed by its fellow traveller questions: Why is college so expensive? Why can’t people make more money with a college degree in X (insert whatever major you want)? Aren’t liberal arts degrees a waste of money? Isn’t (gasp!) education becoming obsolete?

Some of these questions have been around a while, but I think the idea of calculating monetary return on investment is relatively new—at least to most people—because it became a greater concern following the Great Recession (i.e., we’ve been hearing variations on it since 2007 or 2008). Some economists, as is their wont, are trying to demonstrate what degrees are worth the tuition/room and board investment and which are not. Naturally, the usual suspects are corralled into groups of “probably” (e.g., accounting, finance, engineering, nursing) and “maybe not” (e.g., the arts, the humanities, some of the social sciences, including psychology). Such analyses look at employment patterns of college grads in those and other degree areas and then link them to average or typical salary data.

I think some things are lost in such analyses—the human and largely unquantifiable side of experience if you will—but will admit that degrees in more vocational disciplines often provide a quicker monetary return than traditional liberal arts degrees. Spoiler alert: This is not news. It’s always been this way. Why the fuss now?

I like to respond to the “bottom-line-what’s-a-degree-worth question” with some other questions:

Is making money really the only reason people should go to college?

Is becoming educated for the sake of education—what we might call broadening horizons or becoming a more interesting and interested person—not a worthy goal?

Should students major in something that promises to be lucrative if they have no interest in the subject? For example, I like my accountant a great deal—he is a consummate professional with sage advice—but I had no interest (let’s be honest—have no interest) in the field. Could I have made a better living as an accountant? You betcha. But does lucre trump love of one’s work or calling?

And what about the elephant in the dorm room: Some of the majors linked to higher salaries require skills in mathematics or science that many would-be undergraduates do not (will not) possess. In their late childhood or early adolescence, many students say they want to be medical doctors, scientists, or astronauts, for example. By late adolescence, the career choice has often changed because of the reality of their academic skills and their nascent interests. And there should be no shame in that.

So, let’s imagine for a moment that a college education is not just about money and credentialing to make money (note I am not saying pursuing monetary reward is bad—income provides for security, sustenance, recreation, family, and so on—but as many readers well know, high incomes do not necessarily lead to happiness; see the now ample research findings in positive psychology). What does that mean? Some other questions to consider: 

What about the wonderful friends forged during the college years? Can we put a price on those?

What about the mind-expanding, exciting, or even troubling things people learn in their college years? Must there be a sticker price on ideas—or history, literature, great music, art, or scientific discovery?

Aren’t things we learn outside the classroom in the course of a college education—the clubs, the late night bull sessions, the films, the concerts, the plays, the arguments, the successful or failed romances, and all the rest—important? Don’t these intangibles also make up an undergraduate education and an educated person? 

When you walk across the stage to get your diploma, aren’t you a changed person in many ways you could not have imagined four years prior during the awkward anxiety of freshman weekend? Isn’t that new you worth the cost, come what may later?

So, are there risks in choosing a major? Sure. Many. Just as there are risks in driving to work or school each and every day. Or crossing the street. Or whatever. Life is a bit of a gamble. You never know what will happen in the future which, as practitioners of the dismal science (economics) will tell you, is always, always uncertain.

So, I like to think that students should have the chance to insert some certainty into their intellectual journeys by pursuing what they want to do or think they want to pursue. College and the college major is a chance to reinvent oneself, to learn new things, and to do so in a compacted four years—there may not be time later for such academic adventures of the mind. And if the degree does not lead to desired employment directly, the skills acquired in that degree can be applicable elsewhere and with great success. 

Remember, relatively few psychology majors become psychologists, but that does not mean they don’t lead interesting and rewarding career lives—as well as just rich lives. A quality education in psychology provides students with a variety of skills, including writing and communication skills, critical thinking and reasoning abilities, scientific and quantitative reasoning skills, psychological literacy, ethical awareness, and relationship skills for connecting with and serving others.

So, we need to remember that education is more than a bottom-line number. I like to think that calculating the interest or actual dividends on a college education is pretty hard to do (with apologies to my economist colleagues, who will always give this task their best shot). If you are a college grad, ask yourself what experiences you had there that can’t be quantified because, while ultimately ephemeral—like most things—they were still memorable and wonderful. And if you are sending a child off to college or heading there yourself, are cost (which admittedly can be daunting) and return (your post-graduate salary) really the most important outcomes associated with the undergraduate experience?

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