Opinion Lost in the college-major-regret story: It’s not about the majors

(Washington Post staff illustration; images by iStock)
(Washington Post staff illustration; images by iStock)

Regrets, I’ve had a few — as have, apparently, many of those who majored in languages, literature, history, art, religion and the like.

Earlier this month, The Post’s “Department of Data” published a striking article about higher education. According to a recent Federal Reserve survey, The Post reported, 37 percent of college graduates — nearly 2 in 5 — regret their chosen field of study, including nearly half of humanities and arts majors. (Engineers reported the lowest rates of regret, at 24 percent.)

This data, on its face, mirrors the dominant conversation around the value of college and the need for more students to shift to “practical” fields of study such as those under the STEM umbrella, or to transition to more vocational training.

But while the findings were eye-catching, the focus on choice of major was a major misdirection. After all, the difference between the highest and lowest rates of regret isn’t actually that large. And “vocational and technical training” was the third-most-regretted field of study.

Even if the “slacker baristas” who majored in “queer pet literature” (thanks, Sen. Ted Cruz) had instead learned to code, they still have a 1 in 3 chance of wishing they had done something else.

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The truth is that in every field, what really underlies regret is debt.

The most-regretted (and lowest-paying) college majors

Delve deeper into the Federal Reserve report and one quote stands out: “Perceptions of higher education are linked to whether individuals had to borrow for their education, and whether the returns on their education were sufficient for them to repay their student loans.”

It’s the bad return on investment — or an ROI lower than expected — that’s causing the deepest dissatisfaction.

The Federal Reserve report adds: “Student loan borrowers with outstanding debt were … twice as likely as those who repaid their debt to say that the costs of their education outweigh the benefits.”

Americans have long been sold the idea that college is a one-way ticket into the middle class — or the cost of admission for staying in it. But what if you pay the very expensive fare and don’t get to your promised destination?

Regret is the natural result.

When higher education becomes a financial albatross rather than a launchpad to success, of course its value might seem dubious. But this raises at least two types of questions. The practical: How do we solve for the high cost of college? And the philosophical: When it comes to education, how do we define “success” and “usefulness” in the first place? What is an education really for, and how do we decide which fields of study are “valuable”?

Debate on the first question has become especially heated since President Biden announced his plan last month to forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt. Some opponents argue (with good reason) that loan forgiveness will work only if it is coupled with financial reforms to the higher education system, and that a more forward-looking policy targeting costs is needed to ensure that the number of borrowers doesn’t continue to grow. Suggestions range from the mild — doubling the Pell Grant maximum — to the aggressive: forcing colleges to help pay off defaulted student loans.

Others say loan forgiveness shouldn’t be granted at all. Which brings us to the second question about how to ameliorate regret — and back to the college-major conundrum.

Framing the Federal Reserve survey results as a “choose the right major” story reinforces the idea that ROI is the only thing that matters. Some may beg to differ.

In a democracy whose success depends on the discernment of its members, shouldn't the goal of higher education be something — well — higher than individual financial success?

“To prepare each citizen to choose wisely and to enable him to choose freely are paramount functions of the schools in a democracy,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said years before he signed the GI Bill and essentially reinvented American higher ed.

According to that ideal, students ought to be citizens, not just consumers. And while choosing the right major might help define a vocation, part of the process should be understanding that vocation within the context of the broader society.

A computer scientist might end up in a highly technical role. But the questions raised within the field — about ethics, creativity, our technological future — require more than technical know-how; they require the ability to think broadly and critically. Students of philosophy might not spend the rest of their lives immersed in ancient texts, but the practices of inquiry they absorb become applicable to an endless array of real-life circumstances.

A field of study can’t be judged simply by projected post-graduation income — the question of how it shapes the student is relevant, too. But these ideas will fall by the wayside as long as debt is a primary concern. And students will continue to regret their decisions, regardless of whether they major in econometrics or, well, English.