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Antony Davies & James R. Harrigan: College-bound students, choose wisely

| Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, 10:09 a.m.

Across the country, freshmen are getting ready to begin their college years, and high school juniors and seniors are thinking about what comes next. The many decisions these students will make over the next few years will influence who they become, and what opportunities they will face for the rest of their lives.

One of the saddest experiences we have as college professors is encountering students who don’t ask the right questions at the right times, and who, consequently, end up wasting time and money traveling fruitless paths. Between the cost of tuition and fees and foregone income from delaying entry into the job market, the cost of the average four-year college degree approaches a quarter of a million dollars. That’s a tremendous investment that too many students make without the appropriate fear. If high school and college students were to ask us what are the most important things they should think about before making this huge investment, we’d say the following.

To high school students: Yes, it feels a lot better to say that you’ll be attending an Ivy League university than it does to say that you’ll be attending a state school. Depending on what you study — though it isn’t true for everything you might study — the Ivies may offer better educations. But the quality of the education you receive will be less a function of where you go than of what you do when you get there. A student who takes control of his or her education and makes it the single highest priority — above sports, friends, jobs and social life — will receive a better education from the average state school than the average student will receive from Harvard or Yale.

To college freshmen: Too many students choose their majors based on what their friends pick, what sounds cool or what a family friend recommends. Don’t. Contrary to what you’ve been told, a college degree isn’t valuable. A college major, on the other hand, can be extremely valuable. Choosing the right major can make the difference between college being a great investment or a financial debacle that will haunt you for decades. Data from Payscale.com show a huge range of outcomes. Career-long incomes (discounting inflation) for workers with four-year degrees who majored in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are $4 million to $7 million. In fact, of the top-20 highest paying majors, all but one is some field of science, engineering, mathematics or statistics. The hold-out, mathematical economics at No. 7, is mathematically based.

Meanwhile, at the low end of the scale are many majors with the words “studies” or “education.” The average graduate with a major in early childhood education, family studies, elementary education, counseling psychology or photojournalism, to name just a few, earns less than the average high school graduate. And that’s not counting the quarter-million-dollar cost of the degree. Financially speaking, these majors actually have negative value.

So choose your school, major and how you spend your time wisely. Few decisions will impact the rest of your life nearly as much, and sadly, there are few decisions people make more blindly. Dreaming about what comes next is not good enough. Thinking soberly about what comes next in light of the data is a much better start.

Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James R. Harrigan teaches in the department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast Words & Numbers.

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