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Higher Ed Shake Up
If You Major in STEM, It Doesn’t Matter Where You Go to College

We’ve written before about how selective colleges function to perpetuate privilege, giving students access to exclusive resources, opportunities and networks that are unavailable to students who are just as bright but couldn’t impress an admissions committee at age 17—or who, for financial or personal reasons, didn’t want to go to a elite school. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the economists Erica Eide and Michael Himler, who have tallied earnings data for students across colleges and across different majors, offer an important qualification to his phenomenon: it only seems to apply to students who earn liberal arts degrees. Students with similar characteristics who major in STEM fields earn roughly the same wherever they go to college:

We find no statistically significant differences in average earnings for science majors between selective schools and either midtier or less-selective schools. Likewise, there’s no significant earnings difference between engineering graduates from selective and less-selective colleges, and only a marginally significant difference between selective and midtier colleges.

…That said, the earnings picture is very different for other fields. Outside of STEM, it matters tremendously where a student receives a degree.

The starkest earnings differences are for business majors, where graduates from the selective institutions earn 12% more on average than midtier graduates and 18% more than graduates from less-selective colleges. Likewise, social-science majors from selective colleges earn 11% more than their midtier counterparts and 14% more than those from less-selective schools.

For education majors, the differences are 6% and 9%, respectively. In humanities, graduates of selective schools earn 11% more than those from less-selective ones, although they don’t earn more than those from midtier schools.

There are many interesting nuances to their findings not captured in the above excerpt, so read the whole thing. In the meantime, two preliminary points seem worth making:

First, the fact that STEM majors who go to inexpensive low-or-mid-tier schools do just as well, income-wise, as their counterparts who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an Ivy League education, suggests that there is plenty of room for cost-saving in these programs. Universities are starting to take advantage of this: Perhaps the most successful MOOC degree program to date is Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree in computer science, which costs 80 percent less than its in-person counterpart. Elite liberal arts colleges tout the value of face-to-face learning in a small classroom setting, and, indeed, this may be valuable to many students. But Eide and Himler’s findings suggest that, for scientists and engineers, such an experience doesn’t actually change students’ job prospects. At a time when college costs keep going up, and middle and working class families keep getting squeezed, these data highlight the need to find more efficient ways to deliver knowledge at lower cost.

Second, the fact that there is such a dramatic difference between the earnings of liberal arts majors from top colleges and students with similar abilities from lesser-ranked colleges suggests that the privilege-reinforcing effect of elite education discussed above can be very real. Not only is this unfair, it points to economic inefficiencies: If colleges are relying on the prestige of liberal arts students’ degrees, rather than their actual skills and knowledge, to make hiring decisions, they are probably selling themselves short. That’s one reason we proposed a system of national exams to allow students from, say, West Texas State to compete on equal footing in the job market with students from Princeton. One reason the incomes for STEM majors are comparable across schools is that many technology companies have essentially figured out how to do this for engineers. Companies that hire philosophy majors would do well to also start thinking along those lines.

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