College Majors "Worth" Something

05/22/2015 04:42 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Dr. Alisse Waterston is an anthropology professor at CUNY and president-elect of the American Anthropological Association

Inside Higher Ed was exactly right when it predicted the newest report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce "will surprise exactly no one."

The Georgetown study on the economic value of various college majors finds, among other things, that the top-paying majors will bring graduates millions more in earnings over the course of a lifetime than the lowest-paying majors, and that all but two of the 25 highest-paying majors are in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields; the two outliers are in business fields.

The real surprise will come when, instead of studying economic value, researchers finally report on which majors bring about overall job satisfaction, the most fulfillment, and the ability to think critically. Now that would be "worth" something.

By now many people are aware of the stark realities regarding higher education: its high cost, the enormous debt students take on for such an education, and the struggle many graduates face to find jobs with salaries and benefits sufficient to support themselves and pay back those hefty student loans. Is the best way to address this higher education crisis to study which majors are the best bang for the buck? Such a focus locates the problem in the college major itself. Looking at it from that perspective conceals the fact that in the first place, wages reflect what work is valued in a society. Petroleum engineers make more money than teachers. What does this suggest about our national priorities? Where is the study that tells us more about that?

The Georgetown report will lead people to conclude that the solution for students is to study the "right" major -- the one that will lead to more lucrative jobs. After all, only these majors are worth the high cost of education. For all the rest -- the teachers and social workers, poets and musicians, art historians and anthropologists -- the message seems to be: it's wasted investment.

Of course, that depends on what we believe is the purpose of education. A study that examines the economic value of college majors offers fodder for those who believe the sole purpose is to get credentials. When it comes to higher education, the better questions might be: What are our ethical ideals? What kinds of citizens do we want to produce? What kind of society do we want? A more useful study would measure what kind of thinking human beings and world citizens are produced by the various disciplines.

When it comes to choosing majors, not all students base the decision on a simple financial calculus. Who ever went into philosophy or anthropology for the money? There are other "successes" that draw people to these majors. For example, students who major in anthropology generally are eager to understand the world as it exists, to gain perspective, to develop knowledge of regions, peoples, cultures, global issues; to develop skills to research, analyze, communicate, work and use information in global, cross-cultural settings; and to develop values of respect and concern for other cultures and peoples. It is well known that people are likely to change their careers -- not just their jobs -- several times over their working lives. Wouldn't society be better off with students who seek education that prepares them for lifelong learning?

Ranking (and promoting) a list of college majors that may later generate the largest incomes is an old story, made more frustrating by the over-emphasis today on measurements of materialism. These measurements may give us data points, but without context or historical depth, they don't give us the full picture.

It is difficult to find a direct line between education and changing people's consciousness, changing people's lives and informing the work they do in the world no matter what the compensation may be. How do you measure when a media executive who majored in anthropology, years later remarks, "Anthropology informs everything I do in my work at the company," or when an undergraduate student exclaims, "I just realized that I am IN history!" Priceless.

We all know there isn't a lot of money in certain fields -- in public service, for example, or elementary school teaching. Does that mean college majors leading to these fields (and subsequently, the students therein) have less value? Maybe it means we need them more desperately now than ever.