Crunched by the Numbers

I don’t understand business.

Really, I don’t. Besides the fact that I experience serious nausea brought about by ethics whenever I see business working from the inside, I also don’t get it when it’s me doing the business. How in the world does one calculate what one’s time is worth? Isn’t it more important to get the job done well than quickly and cheaply? Isn’t it more important to get the job done than to bill every hour?

Part of this is because I’ve spent most of my professional life working in or with the non-profit sector, so working with people whose goal is to sell things strictly for profit…well, I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand it any better when it’s my own professional services that are being invoiced.  Even when they’re being invoiced by me. A colleague once said that he had lost out on a significant amount of money in his life because he wouldn’t confront clients when they didn’t pay what was agreed. I’m not sure I wouldn’t confront if someone contractually owed me for my time, but I think I understand where he’s coming from.

All that to say, I hear people talk a lot about this concept of “return on investment.” It’s self-explanatory enough, and I understand it when we’re discussing things like products. If I buy a pair of jeans, I expect a certain lifespan out of them in order to justify the price. I use Macs (partly) because they go forever, and I get my money’s worth out of the device. I believe in “you get what you pay for.”

Except…

I don’t for a second believe that you can apply that concept to education. Years ago, I was at work talking with some colleagues about future educational plans. I mentioned that I wanted to do an MFA in writing, which was my academic goal at the time. This was as I was finishing my graduate degree in religion. The response I received was, “You don’t like going to school for things that will make you money, do you?”

This immediately brought to mind my parents’ questions (raised on multiple occasions) about what exactly that degree that I just sacrificed years for as gotten for me.

You see, I think that the education and life experience are reward enough. I think that studying the humanities and the arts have a “pay off” for us that are at least equal to the “pay off” from a narrower, more scientific or technical field of study, just in a different way. I don’t think that studying the humanities should be an endeavor motivated by earning income. I don’t think that pursuing any academic pursuit should be approached with that in mind.

Which is why this study, “8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment,” which I spotted as it made its way around LinkedIn last week, really leaves me unsettled. In fact, it just leaves me disgusted. I know that someone needed to generate some copy for the site on this particular day, but if this represents our mindset about education, then the so-called “free market” really has poisoned our perspective on everything.

Let me lay aside the fact that the number one worst degree on their list, communications, was what I graduated with from undergrad. Let’s consider their other bad degrees: Fine arts, theology (both of which have been other disciplines that I’ve studied…fair enough). How about education?  Or nutrition? Do we really want fewer professionals becoming teachers because they don’t make enough after college? Perhaps people who would be wonderful educators to our children? Do we want fewer nutritionists in favor of more medications? Fewer sociologists to study the potential dangers of our actions? Really?

I know that there are a lot of complicated pieces to this puzzle. I understand that faculty must be paid well for instructing at these colleges, but tuition prices are still out of control. Salaries for the most important professions barely stay afloat while salaries for professions like finance soar with no end in sight. And, being the pragmatic, quantifying Americans that we are, we begin thinking about which fields of study will make us the most money.

I’m not opposed to studying a technical field in order to make a living (I just finished doing exactly that). I’m motivated by Karen’s story of a friend that she knew in college. She told me that when he had finished high school, he apprenticed and became a master carpenter. Then he attended a liberal arts school for his undergrad degree, paying his way with the income that he earned from carpentry. I really respect that.

Yet, if we limit our educational pursuits to the things that make us the most money, then some of the most important aspects of the human condition…the arts, spirituality, the psychology of the human mind (all listed in this article)…receive less focus. The less focus they receive, the less we understand ourselves. The less we understand ourselves, the more we are doing things just to do them, just to earn more money, just to have more things…all of which leave us ultimately empty.

That’s a not a life that I want for our cultural future. That’s not the educational mentality that I want our daughter to inherit. Articles like this do nothing helpful for students planning their college careers. They are only there to earn ad revenue for the sites that waste pixels by putting them up.

And, incidentally, most of my friends were humanities majors. We continue to make our livings just fine.

Thoughts?

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