Degrees of Value report

APSCUF's April 2016 legislative assembly approved the following statement on the Degrees of Value report:

APSCUF Position Statement on the Degrees of Value report

The debate over the value of a liberal arts education and liberal arts courses is not new. We, as APSCUF, and other organizations have presented objective evidence demonstrating the economic and personal benefits of liberal arts majors as well as the liberal arts courses taken by non-liberal-arts majors as part of their general education curricula. We stand by this evidence, but the claim made in a new report goes farther than the typical anti-liberal-arts arguments; the report leads to a specific conclusion and warrants a specific response.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has produced a document evaluating the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in the context of demographic trends in the state of Pennsylvania (Carnevale, Lou, & Ridley; 2016). Many of the findings are well-substantiated and reflect well on the State System. One finding, however, leads to loose and judgmental claims about the value of humanities and social science majors. At best, the conclusions are alerting the reader to the fact that some majors lead to specific fields of employment. At worst, the conclusions are an indictment against degrees that, in the eyes of the authors, do not lead to high-paying careers (p. 27).

Again, many of the key findings are positive, and they are as follows:

1. Bachelor’s degree-holders constitute a substantial and increasing component of Pennsylvania’s population and an even faster-growing share of its workforce.

2. The State System is a substantial and consistent producer of college graduates in the state.

3. The growth of public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania has outpaced that of private colleges in the state in recent years.

4. On average, State System universities cost students receiving grant and scholarship aid almost $4,000 less annually than other bachelor’s-degree-granting public institutions in the Commonwealth.

5. The State System served a higher percentage of Pell recipients (32 percent) than other public institutions (28 percent) and private nonprofit institutions (24 percent).

6. The private for-profit sector has the highest share of graduates that are underrepresented minorities (24 percent). A lower share of State System bachelor’s degrees (9 percent) went to underrepresented minorities than at other public (12 percent) and private non-profit institutions (11 percent).

7. The 14 State System universities tied with private non-profits for the highest share of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women (59 percent).

8. The majors that lead to the highest earnings for college graduates in Pennsylvania are in areas related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); health; and business.

9. The number of graduates from State System universities with bachelor’s degrees in the STEM majors and health (together STEM-H) has increased by 37 percent since 2009.

10. Almost three-quarters of college-educated workers live in southeast or southwest Pennsylvania, generally in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas.

11. Among the top State System majors, some tend to have stronger links to specific occupational clusters, while others provide a more general education that prepares students for careers in a variety of areas.


Although item No. 6 is certainly worth exploring in more detail, the summary is generally positive, stating that PASSHE institutions are serving a larger portion of the population at a lower cost than private institutions. Additionally, PASSHE institutions are generating an impressive amount STEM majors; an increase of 37 percent in just more than five years!

Our committee is concerned about what the report implies from its analysis of the final point. The report rightly notes that, unlike degrees from health (STEM-H) and education, degrees from the liberal arts and social sciences do not lead to specific jobs; few would find this surprising. However, the report goes on to state that “workers who majored in other top State System fields including education, humanities and liberal arts, and social sciences tended to have lower earnings than college-educated workers overall (p. 20).” These “workers” are not identified as PASSHE graduates and certainly include graduates from non-PASSHE institutions.

There are no recommendations associated with this statement, but the implications in the closing paragraphs are clear:

For individual citizens, a bachelor’s degree has become the surest path to joining the middle class. For states, continued investments in education are likely to spur greater economic growth. A changing economy and renewed attention to the role of higher education make this a good time for the State System to focus on better connections between college and careers. As college costs and the level of outstanding student debt have risen sharply, more students are asking pointed questions about the value of majors before pursuing a degree. Trends in assessing higher education and financing it are increasingly pointing to the importance of aligning programs with the needs of the workforce. Those providing higher education will be held to higher standards of accountability in the choices they are making and the outcomes of those choices.

Making better information available and data-informed decision-making are increasingly important in higher education. This report, together with the State System’s program alignment toolkit, is a step in that direction. The next step for Pennsylvania is to do what a growing number of other states have done: make greater use of education data linked with wage records, the new frontier of data in higher education. (p. 31)

There is no doubt that APSCUF faculty must consider the future of our students as we help them plan their academic and professional careers. We should do our best to provide our students with valid information about their career prospects. We should even make them aware of publications like the Degrees of Value report. In our opinion, it does not reveal anything that our students, with proper advisement, should not already know, but, when discussing the conclusions of this report, we recommend that APSCUF responds with the following points:

1. We do educate and advise students with an eye to personal and financial success. Our students and we know that some degrees are, in large sets of aggregate data, associated with higher-than-average incomes. APSCUF should clearly articulate our interest and efforts in providing students with not only marketable skills but also appropriate professional advice, including data on employment prospects and salaries as presented in documents like the Degrees of Value report.

2. Students will be forever inclined to follow their talents and passions. Students — and educated people, the world over — choose careers with more than an income in mind. Our objectives as faculty should be to prepare them for financially and personally rewarding career paths while giving them the skills to remain versatile in a changing 21st century workforce. Our defense of the general education curriculum, for example, is a defense of the broad array of skills that our students will need. Sometimes, courses of study place students in the direction of careers that large studies link to lower salaries, but there is no way to predict an individual’s potential, nor is it appropriate to assume that a student will be unfulfilled or economically compromised by earning a salary that lies below the state median for college graduates. We must challenge mathematically absurd indictments that criticize certain majors for not yielding “above-median” salaries, and PASSHE cannot help the economy by forcing students into what they may perceive as undesirable career paths.

3. PASSHE should not use data drawn from large populations of graduates — from an undefined array of institutions and majors — and unquestioningly apply it to our students. We need to be on guard against claims drawn from broad data sets (which certainly include non- PASSHE graduates) that are then specifically applied to our graduates (p. 27). We must also be on guard against “apples and oranges” comparisons regarding what is happening in other states. Large data sets are important, and the data supplied by the Degrees of Value report paint an interesting picture about Pennsylvania’s economy and workforce. A more useful report, however, would address data from PASSHE graduates.

4. We fully understand that our students are incurring debt while attending our universities, but a PASSHE education remains a logical choice for a quality, affordable education, as clearly stated in the Degrees of Value report. Quality public education is a solution to, rather than a cause of, unmanageable student loan debt.


At this point, the purpose of the Degrees of Value document appears to be an indictment of not only the liberal arts majors but also a signal that proposed changes are on the way. The document is a leverage tool. All faculty should familiarize themselves with the report and be prepared to respond.

 

References

Carnevale, A.P., Lou, C., & Ridley, N. (2016). Pennsylvania degrees of value: College majors and the Pennsylvania State System’s contribution to the workforce. Washington, D.C. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from https://cew.georgetown.edu/pennmajors