Not an easy checklist

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I just want to go on the record saying that I have a HUGE problem with this proposed legislation to have colleges collect and publish data about the average salaries that formers students are now making (broken down by major). I think this is indicative of a terrible trend in our society — assuming that “success” is measured wholly on earning potential. Other critics of the legislation have noted that the data, without further explanation, misrepresents aspects of earning potential.

My issue with it is more general. Why are we assuming, and sending the message to young people, that when thinking about one’s future the potential to earn big bucks is the main factor we should be considering?

I majored in English here at Mary Washington. I got a graduate degree in instructional technology and media. I now work for the University and, while I make a decent salary, I could probably increase it by half as much or more if I went to work in the private sector. I’m not doing that because I happen to be passionate about working in education. I think that working in a job where I feel like I’m doing something that contributes to the public good is more important than making a lot of money. On a personal level, I also enjoy the laid-back nature of working in higher education, the freedom to explore and try new things, and the overall flexibility. All of these factors make me HAPPY in ways that money would not.

My husband and I just had a conversation about this issue yesterday. He’s a scientist who teaches at the community college level. He could definitely double his salary by going into the private sector. But, to do so, he’d likely have to travel about 30-50% of the year. He wouldn’t have the option to take his summers off. He wouldn’t be able to set his schedule so that he can easily be home to see his kids on weekdays. We would be a lot more wealthy, but, for us, that doesn’t translate into happier.

I HATE our culture’s tendency to think of earning potential as some sort of validation of one’s self-worth as a person. It’s one-dimensional.

Yes, I understand that when you graduate from college you’d like to be able to assume that you can earn a good living — enough to support yourself and, perhaps, a future family. But I think that reaching that goal is more about understanding, holistically, your needs as a human being, than it is about looking at a list of majors and picking the one that has the highest starting salary/earning potential attached to it.

(Also, can we talk about how UMW was just ranked (for the third year in a row) in the top 5 small universities that produce Peace Corps volunteers? Reducing a presentation of our students’ potential to what they earn completely IGNORES this kind of information.)

How can we really prepare our students for happiness AND financial security in the future?

  • Create programs at our schools that prepare our students to be adaptive, life-long learners in the 21st century
  • Talk honestly with students about what kinds of jobs they’re likely to get out of college and what kind of money they might be able to earn. Talk about this topic in a well-rounded, honest way. Acknowledge the difference between starting salaries and late-career salaries. Discuss earning potentials with regards to graduate school. Bring in former graduates to talk about what they actually do AND what they actually can earn. Tie this information to real people,  living real, full, happy, and complicated lives. Talk about the choices we have to make as adults when it comes to weighing salary potential against other, important factors in our lives.
  • Teach kids (from a young age) how to manage and save money, and how to not spend more than they have
  • Understand the realities of financial aid and college debt, and do our best to arm students and families with information to make good decisions
  • Encourage our kids to strive to do something they LOVE. Yes, they need to think about how to translate that passion into a living, but picking a major JUST because it can earn you a lot of money is one to way end up in a career you hate — which can quickly translate into a life you hate
  • Teach our kids ALL the dimensions of happiness — public service and giving back to our communities; living a healthy, active life; building meaningful relationships with people we love; raising a healthy, happy family (IF that’s what one wants out of life)

I know this is NOT an easy checklist of things that we can do to ensure our students’ future success. Guess what? Life (and learning) are messy and complicated. There is no checklist, or list of data, or easy answer that is going to guarantee success.

(Also, can we talk about how SICK I am of adding another data reporting burden on institutions of higher education? Can we please spend our money on what matters — quality teaching?!)