Since writing my column for the last issue of CAS Spotlight, I have been pleased to read about two recent studies that use lifetime earnings, rather than salaries earned in the first job out of college, to measure the return on investment from higher education. Both studies show that for the average student a college education more than pays for itself in terms of higher salaries earned over one’s lifetime, producing a positive return on investment. One of the studies even showed that St. Thomas graduates, in particular, do quite well by this measure.
While lifetime earnings are a good start toward measuring properly all of the returns from a college education, they are by no means the end of the story. If we are to construct a meaningful measure of the return on investment for higher education we must include both monetary and nonmonetary returns. As one simple example, if two college graduates receive the same stream of lifetime earnings, but one graduate loves her job and the other hates his, I would argue that the return on investment for the first graduate is considerably higher than for the second, even though a strict financial calculation would yield identical returns.
I think of this example when I read in the media comparisons of the most lucrative positions that require only a high school diploma with similarly paying jobs that require a college degree. When one considers only financial benefits, choosing to pursue a college education in this instance will not appear to yield an attractive return on investment. But if the college degree qualifies the graduate for work that he finds to be much more meaningful and/or enjoyable than the alternative, I would argue that the return on investment from education in that instance may actually be quite high.
I also think of this simple example when counseling students to pursue their passions and worry less about only the financial considerations of a career choice. I once had a student whose parents pressured him into declaring a major in accounting, thinking that the prospective salary and job security would guarantee a high return on investment. What they did not figure into their calculations was that their son disliked accounting intensely, guaranteeing a very low return on investment for that degree for that student. While the parents saw accounting as a path toward economic security, their son saw it as a life sentenced to doing what he hated. They held very different views of the return on investment calculation.
In the College of Arts and Sciences we have many successful graduates doing what they love. Some of them are paid more than others, but all are enjoying a high return on their investment in education.