Publication Date

May 20, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

President Donald Trump’s executive order of March 21 on “free inquiry, transparency, and accountability in colleges and universities” is a textbook example of a classic negotiating ploy—misdirection. While our attention is directed to dealing with a few sensational instances of campus disruptions (“free inquiry”), the executive order provisions that deserve close scrutiny relate to “transparency and accountability.” On the surface, each of these is an admirable desideratum. In this case, however, they are entry points to a pernicious agenda that subordinates learning to earning.

Section 4 of the executive order directs the secretary of education to establish reporting mechanisms as part of an expanded College Scorecard for program-level earnings and student loan default rates. We are all for expanding transparency in higher education, and a federal role in the provision of useful information to prospective students and other stakeholders is as appropriate as in any other area of American life. The issue is the definition of “value.” One should raise eyebrows at institutions that claim to offer students an education valuable to career pathways, but leave a substantial proportion of those students unable to repay the debt necessary to finance what little education they actually receive. But to equate earnings with value is another matter altogether, one that implies that the ministry, teaching, social work, and other forms of public service are somehow less valuable than pathways toward wealth.

President Trump speaks to an audience at the White House before signing an executive order for “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities.”

President Trump speaks to an audience at the White House before signing an executive order for “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities.” The White House/Flickr

The Trump administration is hardly alone in tying “accountability” to an implicit assumption that “success” means a high salary. We’ve all seen the charts and graphs depicting simplistic juxtapositions of college majors and earnings data. Incorporating this narrow definition of success into an executive order, however, vaults this amoral social ethos into public policy. The message to students and other stakeholders is bizarre at best, as it devalues the very occupations that are at once poorly compensated and yet essential to civic culture, democracy, and spiritual development.

The executive order, however, does get at least one thing right: the potential benefits of tying the student debt problem to the issue of post-graduation compensation. Institutions that don’t provide education commensurate with cost, and that aggressively market debt financing of such education, should indeed pay the price—a policy that could reduce overall student debt loads, eliminating such institutions from the system. But we can also reduce those burdens by demonstrating society’s gratitude to those who serve the public good despite relatively low compensation. There is precedent for a reasonable and prudent debt-forgiveness program. We’ve done it before; let’s do it again.

One should raise eyebrows at institutions that claim to offer students an education valuable to career pathways, but leave a substantial proportion of those students unable to repay the debt necessary to finance it.

Public service aside, it is also worth a closer look at the data. Some majors prepare students for jobs, others for careers. Training in the social sciences and humanities tend toward the latter, with earnings curves to match. As the economy has recovered from the Great Recession, unemployment rates have fallen for all college graduates, and humanities/social science majors are employed at rates comparable to their peers in other major fields of study. Humanities/social science majors find employment in a wide variety of careers, and are, as their careers progress, quite likely to be managers in their selected fields. A few years out of college, humanities and social science majors outperform majors in fields like business management and accounting, for example. And over the course of a lifetime, as a recent Brookings Institution analysis shows, the top 10 percent of earners in history and philosophy beat out those in computer science.

Evaluating institutions based on short-term earnings data does have some useful functions, as many students do not have the luxury of long-term career horizons. But one size does not fit all, and many students are well advised to avoid succumbing to misleading stereotypes about “job-ready” majors.

The executive order, however, does get at least one thing right: the potential benefits of tying the student debt problem to the issue of post-graduation compensation.

Indeed, the societal payoffs from investing in humanities and social sciences on campus go far beyond jobs and salaries. Graduates from these fields are well prepared to continue for additional professional training in law, medicine, business, and public service. They are well prepared to reflect on the breadth and complexity of the problems we face in the 21st century, and they play a key role in developing culturally sensitive strategies in a world that is increasingly animated by cross-cultural contacts. And directly out of school, graduates go to work, improving health-care and educational systems, working toward environmental sustainability, protecting cultural heritage, reducing global inequalities, and increasing awareness of the many forms of households and families that raise our children and take care of our elderly. Humanities/social science graduates start green businesses that enable more sustainable resource use, user-friendly design, environmental quality and sustainability, improved international balance of trade, and energy independence.

Focusing on specific knowledge rather than skills runs contrary to current employment trends in the private sector. Companies are now looking for candidates who bring to the table critical thinking, analytical ability, cultural understanding, effective communication, and an overall ability to engage with diverse audiences, markets, and collaborators. While applauding goals of transparency and accountability, we encourage scorekeepers to find better ways to tally than counting salary dollars.

James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Edward Liebow is executive director of the American Anthropological Association. He tweets @Liebow4.

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