A new national study released last week concluded that, even as college costs continue to soar, each additional degree earned translates into higher average wages, regardless of the type of career.
But the study, by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, noted something else of interest: Careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM areas) are likely to pay considerably more than careers in the arts and humanities.
That’s not particularly a surprise. But, as The Oregonian reported in a story about the study, students at Oregon public universities are more likely than their counterparts throughout the United States to opt for a degree in the humanities: In 2010, the study found, about a third of all degrees awarded at Oregon’s public universities and colleges were in the arts and humanities. Nationally, the number was about 26 percent, a little more than a quarter.
Students with degrees in the arts make an average annual salary of $35,000. Students with degrees in the STEM areas make an average of $57,000.
It’s figures like that — especially combined with legitimate concerns about the affordability of higher education — that make it tempting for students (not to mention their parents) to think about the return on investment from their tuition dollars as they make decisions about higher education.
The return on investment certainly is one factor to consider.
But we find ourselves agreeing with Oregon State University President Ed Ray, who argued in a Sunday interview with the Gazette-Times that it shouldn’t be the only factor.
Equally important — if not more important — is winding up in a career that you love.
Here’s part of what Ray said in that Sunday interview: “Return on investment is not just dollars and cents. … To the extent your children, my children find themselves doing things that they’re happy doing day in and day out, that’s as good as it gets, and it’s not just about money.“
That’s true. But it’s also true that as long as some professions pay more than others — which is to say, forever — universities and colleges need to do everything they can to make higher education affordable. At OSU, for example, that translates into cost-cutting where necessary, and fundraising to help pay for scholarships, among other items. (And it wouldn’t hurt to figure out ways to bolster science and math education programs in the state’s public schools, but that’s a topic for another editorial.)
Last week’s study showed that college degrees, despite the price tag, still come with at least some payback.
But in terms of a return on investment that goes beyond dollars and cents, that’s a calculation that students still need to make for themselves.