Analysis Examines Return on Investment of Majors in Virginia Colleges | Latest titles
Students majoring in philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University pay nearly $15,000 a year in tuition. But according to a recent analysis, the average graduate was still earning minimum wage five years after graduation.
The analysis, which estimated the earnings of 750 school-specific majors in Virginia, found that VCU philosophy majors earned the least in the state. Other programs downstairs include Regent University‘s Drama Department and Mary Baldwin’s Arts Program.
Meanwhile, graduates of the University of Virginia’s computer science program earned $110,000 a year five years after graduation, the most in the state. They were followed closely by Washington and Lee University computer science grads and AVU computer engineering alumni.
Taken together, the data indicates that whether college provides a positive financial return on investment depends primarily on the field of study and, to some extent, the college the student attended.
Virginia colleges have long debated how to weigh the intrinsic value of certain majors against their monetary value. At a time when tuition is rising, student debt remains high, and jobs go unfilled, many students across the state choose majors that are more likely to provide good pay.
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Peter Blake, head of the Virginia State Council on Higher Education, said colleges have a responsibility to ensure programs are aligned to meet job demands as closely as possible, especially now.
A program’s return on investment, he said, is “particularly important.”
The study, which estimates revenues for bachelor’s degree programs nationwide, was released last fall by the Equal Opportunity Research Foundation, a think tank described as centre-right.
The researchers used 2017 and 2018 earnings reported to the College Scorecard, a government database that compiles salary values soon after graduation, and Census Bureau data to project future earnings. The study is not intended for students with a graduate and professional degree.
Some majors never provide a financial return on investment. These students would have made more money in their lifetime if they had saved about $100,000 in tuition, started earning a paycheck four years earlier, and started moving up the salary ladder sooner.
According to the study, nearly one in four college students in Virginia fail to deliver lifetime ROI. The majors least likely to provide financial windfalls are psychology, biology, fine arts, drama, English, and social work. The schools that house the highest number of negative ROI majors are Liberty University, VCU, University of Mary Washington, and Radford University.
The majors that offer the highest ROI tend to focus on science, technology, engineering, math, and business. Several nursing programs also top the list.
You don’t need to go to a prestigious school or an expensive school to get a high paying job. The highest paying majors are found at VCU, Old Dominion University, and for-profit schools such as ECPI University.
Some perhaps unexpected subjects landed in the top 100: Romance languages at Washington and Lee, politics at AVU, and interdisciplinary studies at AVU, indicating that graduates from the more prestigious schools are more likely to get well-paying jobs even if they are not enrolled in a high-value major.
“A civilized world” needs philosophy
Although not wealthy, philosophy graduates earned a wide range of estimated salaries five years after graduation, ranging from $44,000 at the College of William & Mary to $17,000 at VCU.
The VCU figure, which comes from 2017 and 2018 data, is close to the minimum wage at the time.
Donald Smith, director of the VCU philosophy department, said the results do not match his analysis of the jobs that VCU philosophy graduates earn.
“I was in disbelief,” he said.
In recent years, VCU philosophy graduates have become research analysts at OrthoVirginia, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, and principal analysts at Lumber Liquidators. About half of graduates go on to law school or another postgraduate degree, he estimated.
The estimated median salary of philosophy graduates nationwide is $37,000 in this study, which is a lower figure than that cited by other studies. For example, a 2021 New York Fed study of the labor market for recent college graduates found that philosophy graduates had a median salary of $39,000 at the start of their careers, but it reached a median mid-career salary of $62,000.
Due to the specificity of the Equal Opportunity Research Foundation report, its sample sizes are small.
“I have no reason to think that VCU philosophy majors fare significantly worse in terms of ROI than what these other studies indicate,” Smith said.
Just because a major doesn’t pay well doesn’t mean it has no value, said Blake, head of the state Council on Higher Education. Return on investment is an important measure of a program’s success—the average debt for a University of Virginia graduate is $30,000. But this is not the only measure.
“A civilized world needs people who are trained and educated in English, history, social work, early childhood education, art, anthropology, etc.,” he added.
Philosophy enhances reasoning skills, the ability to be open to criticism, and the ability to rationally disagree, Smith added. All of these skills are relevant to any career a student might pursue.
Josh Hartt, 21, graduated from VCU last month after double majoring in political science and philosophy. Philosophy didn’t help his job search much, but if he could do college again, it wouldn’t change a thing.
“It taught me to think in a way that most people don’t, and it was worth every penny,” Hartt said.
Hartt doesn’t have a job yet, but he has enough money to buy an apartment in Richmond while he applies. He plans to enroll in law school next year.
What has helped him the most in his career is the job prospects working on political campaigns. He says the professors and students he met in philosophy classes were some of the best at VCU.
“If you’re interested in philosophy, don’t let job prospects deter you,” he added.
Hartt’s feelings match those of most students, who are largely happy with their decision to go to college. In a survey of 15,000 Virginia college graduates over the past 15 years, 88% said they felt satisfied or very satisfied with their undergraduate experience.
A majority, 70%, say their time at university prepared them for the world of work. But only 56% said their education was worth the cost.
Ethan Hamilton broke the mould. Days after graduating from VCU philosophy last year, he received a job offer as an ontology analyst for an Arlington County consulting firm, building data models for computers and earning about $70,000, well above the national average.
His employer was interested in candidates who understood logic and rules – exactly what he had learned in philosophy.
“For this area, it’s a perfect fit,” he said.
A return on investment of 2 million dollars
Students in the highest-paying majors typically earn six-figure salaries by age 27. Of the 25 highest paying degree programs, 17 are in engineering or computer science.
Joshua Sahaya Arul, 21, took computer science classes at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria and was hooked. At UVA, he chose it as his major mainly because he liked the subject.
A summer internship at Capital One turned into a job offer months before he graduated from AVU. At 21 – he finished college in three years – he was earning nearly $110,000, the estimated salary for his major for graduates five to seven years older than him. He recently accepted a job at Google.
According to the study, he and other AVU computer science graduates will receive more than $2 million in college return.
The State Board of Higher Education does not close programs that do not provide good jobs. Instead, it pays attention to a program’s popularity. If students stop enrolling, the program may be terminated. Essentially, the council of state lets the market decide.
If majors have high demand, “there has to be some value that students see in it,” Blake said.
For years, students have chosen majors that don’t guarantee a big salary. Psychology is the most popular major in the state, with 5% of students enrolled, and it has been among the most popular majors for at least 30 years.
The highest-paying psychology program is at the Virginia Military Institute, where graduates earn about $47,000 five years after graduation.
“Each has its own price when it comes to ROI,” Blake said.
In the survey of college graduates over the past 15 years, around one in three graduates said they went to college for reasons other than preparation for a specific job – either because they felt one waiting there, that they wanted a well-rounded education, or they were trying to figure out what they wanted to do.
But not all majors have maintained psychology’s popularity. In 2010, there were 1,500 students in Virginia studying English. By 2020, that number had dropped by 40%.
VCU has seen this trend with its new students. Over the past four years, fewer incoming freshmen have chosen the College of Humanities, which houses departments such as Biology, English, and Philosophy.
What’s growing are engineering, business, education and healthcare — programs with clear job destinations, said Tomikia LeGrande, VCU’s vice president for enrollment.
The university’s goal, she said, is to ensure that students can consider a career no matter what major they choose.