Last month, The Wall Street Journal published a list of the top United States colleges that set their students up for financial success, ranking Penn as the No. 1 school with the most impact on graduate salaries. The Salary Impact ranking is pretty simple, but this can make it flawed. It compares the value of the undergraduate degree to alumni earnings by measuring how much more they earned 10 years after enrollment with the average postgraduate high school student’s salary in their state.
To say that Penn graduates make a lot of money after college is not at all surprising. Take a quick look through the Post-Graduate Industry Reports from any year and you will find that Penn graduates flock to financial services, consulting, and technology — notoriously lucrative fields — after college. These industries gross the highest starting median salaries, generating a cool $93,000 and $124,000 for the latter two fields. On the opposite end of the spectrum, postgraduate fields traditionally associated with the humanities, like education and media, typically account for lower earnings, from anywhere from $50,000 to $62,500. With Penn’s tuition sitting at $89,000 and gradually increasing year by year, an impending recession on the way, and an uncertain professional landscape altered by artificial intelligence, it’s no wonder that students are pursuing "safe" career and academic paths.
But is there another metric through which we can measure return on investment in higher education? A case can be made that the true value of a college education is not in a monetary figure but in truth seeking, in the philosophical understanding of why things are the way they are. The worth lies in students having a resonant understanding of history and ensuring that they can not only absorb but also question traditions upon graduation. After all, a society needs informed citizens, and studying the humanities in college seeks to do just that: It should provide students with their place in history and their place in the future.
Pre-professionalism at Penn is readily written and talked about. A majority of Penn graduates, regardless of major, will end up pursuing full-time consulting or finance jobs. Pursuing education this way — as a means to an end for a profitable job — is emblematic of a broader issue in higher education that spans beyond Penn's campus. With the rise of and focus on STEM-related fields in the job market, there has been a distinct pre-professional pressure for a return on the investment in an undergraduate degree, resulting in a general decline in studying the humanities.
Since 2016, the number of computer science majors has risen nearly 49% in the U.S., where there are now as many, if not more, students majoring in computer science than in all the fields of humanities combined. Departments like history and English are dying out either due to the lack of institutional support or from a general decline in student interest in the major’s practicality. As a result, critical thinking is in free fall as many non-STEM-inclined students are instead veering towards practical fields like the social sciences and abandoning the arts and humanities altogether. Increases in studying political science and economics are prime examples of this, in which the emphasis on quantitative studies, particularly data analytics, are pursued more than the rest of the liberal arts. Hard skills, like the ability to code or perform data analysis, are perceived to be more in demand by employers and immensely more beneficial for career development than soft skills like creativity, cultivating values and ethics, writing, and critical thinking.
And yet the oversubscribed notion that technology equals progress and profit while the humanities are inflexible and unemployable is false. Even in a business and technology dominated world, employers are seeking graduates with robust skills in interpretive and philosophical modes of thinking and inquiry as they have the necessary tools to contextualize problems and critically solve them. Humanities degrees also prepare students for lucrative careers over the growing course of their lifetime, generating a higher return on investment. Furthermore, the myth that the humanities are worse off in terms of employment is untrue, as majors in philosophy, English, and history are employed at rates comparable to other majors with the general unemployment rate for all degree holders around 2.17%, and 2.13% for humanities degree holders.
We should call into question traditional assessments of ROI. The status quo is innately self interested in quick turnover and market-driven results as a barometer for success. This is, however, the antithesis of the holistic liberal arts education that Penn claims to offer its students. Synthesis, application, and transmission of new knowledge is a process that takes time.
Yes, students should be able to make a living with their degree after college, but they should also be equipped to perceive and solve the underlying issues of society at a human rather than an analytical level. Of course, there are certain axioms that go unquestioned, like the benefits of development and progress. But even so, we measure the production of both quantitatively rather than qualitatively.
We often forget that collaboration and empathy are among the most valued traits in our current society: step into any English class and ask students for their majors, and you’ll likely hear from a mix of diverse backgrounds and perspectives in the room. While large lectures and data-focused arguments can be replicated, these tightly knit classes uniquely urge individuals to explicate their theories and challenge their assumptions. That’s one of the many reasons why the humanities are so enticing: even studying something as niche as Irish literature can potentially engender a larger applicable relevance through an hour of fruitful discussion. Arguably, these student-to-student interactions are the most valuable: They build empathy and self awareness, and in our society’s most polarizing times of war and loneliness, there is no better time to learn what it means to be human.
When tassels are turned and the diplomas slide into eager palms, students will leave college not only with an obligation to themselves, but they will bear a responsibility to contribute to something greater. In college, you learn how to think and develop the very foundations in which you are intellectually flexible in the face of change. The world is constantly changing. It is ironic that at the same time that we are encouraged to synthesize all this new knowledge by pursuing "safe" careers, we are collectively shirking away from the very instincts that make us capable of navigating this new world around us.
Penn offers majors that blend the practical and the humanistic aspects of education together. The digital humanities minor at Penn is an excellent example of this as it introduces literary study to systematic thinking. More majors should offer such an education where abstract and humanistic thinking are intertwined to gauge a student’s interest in them. Penn should also expand their definitions of what return on investment can look like and reflect critically on how to provide that to students in order to best nurture them to be the next leaders of society. On campus last spring, TedX keynote speaker Steve Gross suggested we introduce new metrics like a ROH (return on humanity) to advocate for the adaptive growth of humanity beyond its face value.
Maybe the real returns on investment are the LinkedIn connections you make along the way, or their dads who can hand you an internship this upcoming summer.
Or maybe the ROI of learning "that" is dependent on the individual. Whatever it is, the value of a college education should not be boiled down to the monetary value, to the return on investment on paper, but rather, its long-term return on humanity, both individually and collectively.
CATHY LI is a College junior studying English and design from Brooklyn, N.Y. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.