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For some at elite colleges, steep tuition worth the price

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

While financial aid might be harder to come by and scholarships scarce these days, one study shows that going to a school with a high cost of tuition might pay off. An article recently published in The New York Times — “Do Elite Colleges Produce the Best-Paid Graduates?” — ranked Carnegie Mellon as one of the schools whose graduates received the highest starting pays in the nation. Granted, the group behind the research only considered graduates who went into the workplace directly after earning their bachelor’s, not those who continued their education in graduate school. The fact remains, however, that Carnegie Mellon has one of the highest starting salaries for its graduates.

Intriguing, though, is the fact that the article also includes a study on what the highest-paid college majors are and provides a list of the top 10 most profitable ones. Again, this list only considers students who pursued career options after earning their bachelor’s, not graduate school. Not surprisingly, just about every blend of engineering makes the cut; also on the list, in no particular order, are physics, economics, and computer science, along with mechanical, industrial, civil, and environmental engineering.

So, in times when fiscal matters are dictating more and more the way we set the course for our lives, how should we react to this? For some, it is a validation of their chosen path and an indicator that the hard work, diligent study, and copious student loans put into their education will eventually pay off. For students considering colleges to apply to and careers to choose, it has undoubtedly made their decisions either a lot easier or a lot harder.

While those in the hard science professions may be rejoicing — and, for all the effort they put into their studies, they do have the right to — the article doesn’t strike me as all that comforting, despite hailing from one of those happy majors. While the article cheerily assures us that “hardworking students will always do well, wherever they go,” it also provides a list of the bottom 10 majors by career salary. These include drama, fine arts, music, education, and Spanish.

Though it does not come as a great surprise to see the more liberal majors in the lower-paid tier, the uncertainty still so pervasive in our economy might lead to fewer and fewer students pursuing those career paths. It raises the question: Should choice of school and major be about what each student wants or about what their wallet demands? On one hand, perhaps it will entice more people with an aptitude for the sciences and engineering to choose that field and bring more creative thinkers to that arena. On the other hand, it might also draw people away from majoring in more liberal fields, leaving us with fewer elementary school teachers, artists, actors, and musicians in the future. Or, to go out on a limb, perhaps those dedicated to their chosen major will still pursue it, regardless of whether it is a “good investment.”

What I see as the most troubling is not that student loans are rising (which they are), or that graduate school has been teetering back and forth in being a good or bad fiscal investment (which is troubling in itself), but that, for an already competitive and generally not-very-well-paid set of majors, the stakes have just gotten even higher.

People are seeking security, whether it’s in cautious daily spending or carefully chosen professions. Parents may be less willing to let their children major in areas in the liberal arts, instead leading them toward other subjects in the hopes of building a more stable future. Students themselves may choose to pursue areas that are not as passionate about in order to gain job security. While hardly against science and engineering, I cannot help but feel that this will develop into a trend and that, years down the road, we will be a society composed of many brilliant technicians but few brilliant writers, artists, and musicians.

Both quantitative and liberal fields are vital to an education and a civilization. In an age when the culture revolves so much more around all things material and their acquisition, attendance at theaters, support for galleries, and even subscriptions to newspapers have plummeted. If people begin to choose their majors solely as a matter of finance, what will the future hold? Gleaming cities with every technological innovation the mind could call for, but not a play or movie to be found for miles? I hope not.

But there will be fewer; that much is assured. And though I should be congratulating myself on my clever investment, I can’t help but wonder about 20 years from now, when I walk out of my office with my sterling career at its fruition, if I’ll see as many cinemas and playhouses as I do now, or whether it will all have become a thing of the past.