Earnings

What's a college degree actually worth?

June 7, 2011: 11:28 AM ET

A recent study linking college majors to lifetime career earnings has rekindled the long-standing debate over the economic value of higher education.

By Elizabeth G. Olson, contributor

FORTUNE -- Any student or recent graduate knows the awkward college major conversation all too well: "What are you studying? Oh, interesting. What are you planning to do with that?" Translation: Will you actually be able to pay your bills with a liberal arts degree?

A recently released study linking college majors to lifetime career earnings has rekindled the long-standing debate over the economic value of higher education.

The roots of this debate run deep. John Adams, the second U.S. president, even offered his view in the late 18th century. His generation and his sons' generation studied practical subjects "in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelaine," he wrote his wife, Abigail, in a 1780 letter [sic.].

College remained, for decades, a privileged aerie, populated largely by scions of wealthy families. Following World War II and the passage of the G.I. bill, a four-year college education became accessible to the middle classes, allowing a more diverse group to follow Adams' vision and study painting, poetry and other areas not offering certain financial futures.

Even so, generations still debate the practical worth of university degrees -- in everything from drama to French -- at many a kitchen table. Rising education costs, weighty student debt, and the paucity of jobs have given the discussion even more urgency. More

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