Oberlin Blogs

Redefining Value In a College Major

March 9, 2014

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

Recently, I came across an article in the Oberlin Review entitled "Oberlin College Ranked U.S.'s Worst Return on Investment." On the surface, the discussion was nothing new to me yet it struck me so much that I had to blog about it. In light of thinking about education, learning, and how the means and ends of education are valued in American society, this post ties in well with some of my inner-monologues.

**DISCLAIMER: I would like to caution readers that the aforementioned article is found in the Opinions section of the Review (so keep that in mind) and that I am merely offering counter-context for what resonated with me personally. Unfortunately, at the time of this posting the article was not available digitally. In lieu of the actual article (which will be provided when available), the following excerpted quotes offer a chance to rethink some of the assertions made.**

Opening Remarks
"It has been known for years now that Oberlin College is an elite college that provides a fantastic education but has what Business Insider determines as the worst return on investment in the country. And for some reason, nobody seems to care."

I am not an economist and I am not going to claim knowing how to calculate return on investment for a college degree. However, a quick Google search led me to Business Insider's "2013 College ROI Report" which makes me question how is the worth of my degree evaluated? Moreover, what is the method for such an evaluation? Thankfully, there is a methods page that does a decent job of contextualizing terms, variables and conditions of the study.

As far as campus culture, I believe that people do indeed care about where their degree will or will not take them. It is not something that recent graduates question, but all class levels have that ongoing discussion. Somewhere somebody cares about how far their money is going for this Oberlin degree. I certainly do. My point? Folks do care.

The Number
"Oberlin students should care, and here's why: 40 percent of 2013 graduates are unemployed, and one third of graduates are working in positions that do not require a degree."

Nothing is new about college graduates not always securing employment directly after graduation. What is not always a part of the conversation is what are the circumstances of not having employment? What are the 40% doing? Volunteer work, unpaid internships, gap years? Or to keep it real, are they just not replying to emails so there is no real data for them? Basically, there is a larger dynamic going on that is affecting these graduates from securing careers immediately post-graduation. A number of factors can influence this statistic so a blanket statement like this just does not do it for me.

A Word to the Wise
"As mentioned, students need to take an active role in shaping their careers after school. The future of the U.S. economy will be centered on advances in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

I cannot argue that this is not accurate. I agree that students should take an active role in shaping their careers after college (i.e. networking, gaining resume building experiences, learning how to effectively self-promote, building your personal brand and anything that is going to help you out academically and professionally in the long run). What I do not take as easily is that there is no room in the U.S. economy for majors outside of STEM fields.

My talents and passions do not lead me to a STEM career and certainly do not allow me to accomplish what I have to give to the world. However, claps for the folks whose passions are there and can give to the world in that way. It is just not for me. Innovations in STEM fields is fantastic and necessary but so is the work of non-STEM students which brings us to our final excerpt.

Valuing Degrees and Relevancy
"Students should not be demanding the expansion of departments that make Oberlin even less competitive: CAST, ethnic studies, GSF/queer studies, sociology, etc. These courses are irrelevant to adding value to the modern world.The future of the economy is STEM based, and value is derived from what you can dream up and technologically execute."

I will begin by saying it is statements and beliefs similar to this that make the demand for expansions of these departments necessary and contribute largely to the image of Oberlin as the "progressive, inclusive, liberal" space it markets itself to be. Secondly, Oberlin's competitiveness is a relative measure and is not solely reducible to the presence of non-STEM programs, so that claim can go too. Now let us move on to this question of relevance to the modern world.

In my opinion, the social sciences (and the humanities as well) are not irrelevant because they focus on the human condition and the different ways in which humanity is enacted, impacted, transformed and redefined across time. I see value in that and as long as humans persist to exist, that value will be there. On top of that, noticing the nuances of society and its structure is a talent that when used alongside other courses of study is invaluable to the further progression of the modern world.

The work that I do as a social science major matters not only in Oberlin, but to my community, my life and this world. More than anything, what matters in my college major is finding a way to frame my talents in the kind of endeavors that matter the most to me and allow me to be as impactful as I wish to be. What I dream up comes from a legacy of dreams (dreams that had to be fought for, might I add) and whether an HTML code or an equation is attached to that is certainly the only irrelevant thing here in this conversation. Let me do me and be impactful in my own way without further evaluation of why my life work has to fit into anyone else's interpretation of the world.

In the essence of space, I will leave you all with this food-for-thought quote as always:

"For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson


Responses to this Entry

WOW I cannot believe that someone wants to cut the departments that make Oberlin human because they supposedly make Oberlin less competitive. Which, also, I don't buy. Wow. "CAST, ethnic studies, GSF/queer studies, sociology, etc." offer the kind of knowledge that will give your STEM careers a competitive edge, dudes, because if you can be STEM-smart AND human-smart, your brain will be so much more interesting than that of people who only understand how to science and don't understand how to world.

For example: my major is Linguistics (very science-y) but my capstone is in the ethics of language documentation and revitalization (very human-y), and gathering the knowledge I'm getting now about how to not be a shitty human while I'm mucking about in other humans' language - which is very much tied to their identity - is giving me a fantastic foundation in working efficiently, working well with others, and making realistic projects that will actually get done and produce something interesting. Not to mention, I'm going to be kicking oppression in the face while I do those things.

Tell me again how making the world a more just place isn't contributing to its future. Tell me again how letting a society grind people into poverty is good for the economy.

I have a lot of feelings about this.

(Also, dang, can we talk about what kind of return on investment Business Insider doesn't value? Like, the kind that doesn't have to do with dollars?)

Posted by: Ida on March 10, 2014 4:47 PM

Ida you get all the claps, snaps and yesses for this comment! I too have a lot of feelings about equating value only to dollar signs because that's problematic in of itself. On top of that, you're right... knowing how to world is multi-directional and can only be enhanced by studying the human based things as well as the science based things too.

Claps for your major and capstone project too! That is a really dope project and it sounds like you plan on doing some necessary work with it that is going to have some widespread benefit. I'm totally with you on everything you said though.

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on March 10, 2014 5:04 PM

So I'm sitting in the same room as Ida right now and yelling YES YES YES to your blog post. Basically, yes. In case you were wondering. Yes.

The world needs more thinkers, by the way, and there's no way to make the world a better place than to approach it with a willingness to know why we're trying to make it better. Not because someone said STEM is the future, but do we know how to tackle the problems that STEM is trying to solve with humans (and history, and social dynamics, and systematic injustices) in mind?

I work in a tech-heavy part of education, and the biggest discrepancy I see on a daily basis is the mindset that the innovation of technology will help the whole world get better without knowing why it was necessarily broken in the first place (much less if it even needs to be fixed). Well, on the surface, sure, I think technology can possibly save (at least part of) the world, but it's no value to us fix it if we don't know what was wrong in the first place or why that problem even exists in the first place.

So, that. This. I love this post, Alex, and I'm really glad you wrote it.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on March 10, 2014 9:14 PM

YES! YES! YES! Ahhhh Ma'ayan you picked up on my larger point so well! I agree whole heartedly with you (and Ida as well). Between the two of you, my face always lights up when I check my comment emails :) But just yes to you seeing both the small and big picture and the nuances of both. I'm also really glad that you enjoyed this post too.

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on March 10, 2014 9:26 PM

Good article. Thank you for writing this.

Here's some food for thought for the writer of the original opinion piece: in the Oberlin College Office of Development and Alumni Affairs (of which I am a proud employee), STEM majors are very much in the minority. We have people who majored in English, History, Theater, Voice, Arts Management, Religion, even (in my own case) Ancient Greek. That means that without the organizational and communications skills developed while studying the Humanities, there would be much less development of philanthropic relationships between Oberlin and its alumni, there would be much less money coming in, the cost of an Oberlin education would be significantly higher, and the faculty and campus facilities would be of much lower quality.

What does THAT do to your ROI?

Posted by: John Congdon '90 on March 11, 2014 9:53 AM

Right on Alexandria. If we required an economic ROI analysis on everything we do, the world would be an awfully dull and nasty place.

And we love your closing epigraph, worth repeating: "For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

Posted by: Arlene and Larry Dunn on March 11, 2014 10:20 AM

THIS IS CRUCIAL: Note that the PayScale survey on which the Business Insider rankings are based has been *completely* debunked. It's a total fraud, people. Just two reasons: it's based entirely on self-reported data (i.e., there's nothing scientific about it--it only includes people who've gone to the PayScale site and reported their earnings, which I dare say doesn't include more than a handful of Obies), and it systematically *excludes* any graduates with an advanced degree (including all professors, lawyers, doctors, MBAs, etc.--who constitute a very large percentage of Oberlin graduates).

For further discussion, see http://aroundlearning.com/2013/09/8-problems-with-payscale-coms-college-rankings-and-one-solution/ .

Alexandria makes very good points about the value of an Oberlin education--but we should be clear that the very premise on which the Oberlin Review opinion piece is based is totally worthless.

Posted by: David on March 11, 2014 11:13 AM

This is a great blog post, and Ida your comment is so important. I graduated from Oberlin in 2013 with a science major (Biochemistry) and am now in a PhD program at Stanford. There are SO many grad students/post-docs/professors here at Stanford who know how to science but seem to be clueless about or unconcerned with what's going on in the rest of the world. I love science, but I also care about lots of other things, and I care about the ways in which science and scientists interact with the "real world". Scientists here (and maybe in academia in general) seem to think that the more you science (all day all night) the better you science, and I do not agree with that paradigm.

Also, Stanford/the Silicon Valley/now San Francisco are definitely suffering from the mentality of "moar technology, technology will change the world, moar apps moar start-ups production production production" which is just like... kind of nuts.

Relevant article: http://nymag.com/news/features/san-francisco-techies-2014-3/

Posted by: Melanie '13 on March 11, 2014 5:33 PM

John thank you for your comment, insight and compliments! I agree with your food-for-thought in thinking about the type of long-term benefit of studying in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Clearly, skill-sets are developed as well as a commitment to philanthropy and sustained relationships between alumni and the College. A large part of what makes Oberlin attractive (and marketable) is its commitment to diversity, inclusion and critical engagement--all of that is coming from non-STEM fields. ROI, therefore, needs to be shifted to look more holistically at where the returns of an Oberlin degree manifest and in what ways.

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on March 12, 2014 9:13 PM

Arlene and Larry thank you so much for reading! I completely agree that an economic ROI analysis on everything we do in life can only go so far. I'm also happy that you love the closing quote-- I thought it was by far the most encompassing thing to end with that expressed both personal conviction and purpose in relation to a course of study.

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on March 12, 2014 9:19 PM

David, thank you for breaking down the quality of the PayScale survey and Business Insider's rankings. Also thank you for providing links for folks to look into it further *snaps for you* I do think it is important for people to acknowledge that surveys and reports such as these must be evaluated critically before reiterating its findings without its nuances. Fact checking and verification are important skills and, basically, a lot of things need to be taken with a grain of salt and a critical perspective.

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on March 12, 2014 9:26 PM

Melanie thank you for sharing your story!! I think the heart of this blog post really comes full circle when an actual STEM major can share their experience and what I (and others on this thread have said) resonates. I can talk about how much I love my social science majors forever, but for a person who sees little "relevance" in them I am sure what I have said only goes so far. However, as many people have pointed out there is a necessity to know how to world and how to science and when those skill sets are merged, there is truly something powerful being done. Thank you for sharing your experience as well as the link!

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on March 12, 2014 9:31 PM

Dear Alexandra,

Thank you for your precise and cogently written commentary on the OR article referring to the business insider.com post. I took the opportunity to respond to the BI.com editors with the following:

"I would like to point out that ROI is only one of many important indicators when choosing a college or university. It is only the most important factor if one only cares about financial earnings. I'm sure future Wall Street traders, corporate lawyers and inidividuals with a high $Q and a low ethical standard will make excellent use of your 'ROI - bottom 20 universities' article.

But for the rest of us; for those of use who care about growing, exploring, learning, leading, betterment, empathy, and most importantly, making the world a slightly better place during our limited time here, then the group of universities you unceremoniously lumped into a category you described as 'worth less than a GED', are shining examples of places where young adults can discover themselves, their talents, their passions and their life pursuits.

I take it as a badge of honour that my alma mater is ranked number one in your article. My four years at Oberlin transformed in in ways that still guide my - so far - extremely interesting, adventurous and fulfilling life. And while I will never be a millionaire, or retire with the comfort of a Fortune 500 exec, I fall asleep each night with something they can never have: the confidence that every day I do something meaningful that positively affects my community. I will never have to sleep a day in my life with concern about my ethics or the ethics of the institutions that employ me. And that is a blessing no amount of money or ROI can replace."

Keep on keeping on, Alexandra!


William Ledbetter
Class of 1990

Posted by: William Ledbetter ('90) on March 15, 2014 9:13 AM

William thank you so much for your nice words! Also, thank you for sharing your thoughts with Business Insider as well as here in the comment thread. It is always great to hear from alumni's personal experience about what they feel their Oberlin experience has done for them.

What I particularly enjoy about what you've said is this: "I fall asleep each night with something they can never have: the confidence that every day I do something meaningful that positively affects my community." So many of my posts reflect this notion of purpose and intentionality and your words certainly echo that as well. Thanks for reading!

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on March 15, 2014 4:29 PM

Thank you Alexandra for bringing this up. Like many of you, I was agitated by the article. The article is caught in the dominant and invisible frame of mind that my Oberlin education has taught me to see and to question. We live in a society dominated by bottom-line, racist, and sexist thinking, that places profits over the wellbeing of the people and our planet. Where has that thinking led us?

If we are concerned with the inequality that plagues our world and wish to do something about it, we need to understand its roots and take cues from the people who came before us and who have made great strides in the direction of freedom, justice, and equality.

You will not get any of this in a STEM class. As the great scientist, Albert Einstein, once said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Posted by: Jacob on March 25, 2014 1:31 PM

Jacob thanks for sharing your thoughts! The article stirred up a lot of feelings for a lot of folks (myself included) but I am so happy that it prompted all this WONDERFUL discussion and insight sharing. Plus snaps for you for quoting Einstein and relating it to the need for non-conventional (aka not always scientific) thinking to reworking and solving societal problems. There are always multiple ways of doing things and everything you have mentioned holds true.

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on March 25, 2014 8:17 PM

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