The ROI of Degrees: Avoid this Disservice!

3085209738_385419e37fLiberal arts.  Technical degree. Engineering. Psychology. Accounting. Pre-med.  If you spend time online these days, you’ll face a constant barrage of advice about the type of degree that will best guarantee them of a “successful” career.  But here’s the catch….

All the advice is wrong….But, it’s also right.

What, you say?  How can that be?  Simple.  The advice is right for some people and wrong for others.  The problem?  It’s in how we define a “successful” career, and like it or not, that’s not a universal definition (nor should it be).

Earlier today, I came across an article on declaring the “8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment.”  With some trepidation, I clicked through the pages of the article.  It was just as I thought….ugh!  Here was the countdown:

8. Sociology

7. Fine Arts

6. Education

5. Religious Studies/Theology

4. Hospitality/Tourism

3. Nutrition

2. Psychology

1. Communications

Damn!  Psychology’s on the list…I’m doomed, huh?  Think again!  First of all, my Psychology degree is a doctoral degree, so it falls outside the framework of the methodology used to create the list.  And second, the list is complete crap. (Sorry for the vulgarity, but it is what it is)

So, you may ask, what’s so wrong with this list?

For starters, nothing.  (“Say what? But you just said…..”)

15995937-abstract-word-cloud-for-return-on-investment-with-related-tags-and-termsI know, I know.  But if one looks even at the elementary methodology used to create the list, it’s probably pretty accurate.  It’s not the accuracy that’s the issue.  It’s the underlying messages….two, in particular, that the list engenders.

You see, it’s increasingly uncommon to find someone pursuing a professional career in exactly the field in which they studied as an undergraduate.  And guess what?  That’s TOTALLY fine!

An undergraduate education should be about exploring different avenues of thought and gaining new perspectives on the world around us.  Yes, that’s a decidedly liberal arts attitude, but as an experienced business leader, owner, and consultant, it’s precisely the type of background most beneficial in todays era of rapid change and innovation.

So, that brings me to the second “flaw” of the article.  By framing these degrees as those with the least return on investment, one assumes graduates of these degrees will not leverage the skills learned in these majors in ways that inherently boost their “return.”  In fact, time and time again, it has been shown that professionals in nearly every industry with strong communication, relationship, and creative skills and instincts outperform those without these critical abilities.

Second, when one views “return on investment” from a purely financial standpoint (as does, not surprisingly), one misses the entire point of engagement and passion in one’s work and life.  If a career in education, the fine arts, or communications brings a graduate endless joy and lifelong harmony, then why focus on whether graduates of these majors are maximizing their financial potential?  Or, as we’ve explored before, as a society are we viewing “success” truly as financial “ROI?”

As I look back at my academic journey, I’m shocked to see that somehow Political Science and Public Administration (my Bachelor and Masters degrees, respectively), somehow missed this list.  Perhaps they’d have both made the Top 10 list, so just missed this exclusive (and arbitrary) countdown.  Regardless, both degrees provided me with tremendous philosophical opportunities, as well as wonderfully intensive writing abilities that I have leveraged greatly over the past twenty years.  The professional path I’ve taken has not been in the area of politics or public service (beyond the decade in the military), but to say that either degree was a “poor investment” would be both shortsighted and, well, idiotic.

So, rather than doing the disservice of emphasizing to emerging adults the financial folly of pursuing particular educational paths, perhaps it’s time to encourage them to view their ultimate success not in the amount of money they’ll make directly within their “major” field.  Rather, let’s open their eyes to the possibilities and potential paths that any degree may lead to…including the simply fact that through more education, they will open their eyes to the world around them in a way previously not possible.

education-2012-roiAfter all….I’m a soon-to-be Ph.D. in Psychology who started out in Political Science.  My sister is an physician who majored in French.  Before becoming CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner majored in English literature and theatre, and Martha Stewart majored in History and Architectural History.  Seems like their “ROI” worked out fairly positively….perhaps in even more than just a financial sense!  Perhaps….just perhaps, ROI means more than just directly attributable dollars.  Then again, perhaps that’s just a liberal arts perspective speaking…

8 thoughts on “The ROI of Degrees: Avoid this Disservice!

  1. Great article Trevor, my son is working towards a masters in history because he loves history and has been a history buff since he was four. Yet he is not sure where this will take him, I am sure it will all work out very well for him also.

    1. Thanks, Tina! With the first of my two daughters preparing to apply to colleges, this is a message I’m trying to instill in her. Study what interests you…worry about your career later. In reality, it almost always works out, even if it’s in ways you never expected!

  2. Great insight Trevor. Perhaps some of the ROI loss comes when passionate young people alter their choices and trajectory; following the minds of others, not the dreams they had inside their heart.

  3. Thanks for sharing this article, Trevor. I’ve benefitted personally and professionally from my degree in Psychology, which is something I have to explain to others who have business degrees. It’s difficult (impossible?) to measure an expansion of thinking, a shifting of views, or a heightened awareness of interpersonal skills, which is why we measure things like salary. It doesn’t matter your degree – what matters is what you do with your degree. And I wouldn’t change my psych degree for anything!

  4. Trevor,
    Right on target in so many ways. Concerning careers, it’s always best to follow this maxim: Do what you love; love what you do.

    1. Agreed, Ken! It’s about clarifying and then following one’s values, priorities, and passions. When all three are in alignment, most people will lead a satisfying and successful life, regardless of their financial level of “success.” Thanks for the comment!

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