Net Return On Philosophy Major Is Comparable To That Of Engineering Major


A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), “The Costs and Net Returns to College Major,” finds that offering a philosophy major may be as good an investment of educational dollars as offering engineering and health majors.

The study, by Joseph G. Altonji and Seth D. Zimmerman, maps the average costs of educating students in particular majors against the earnings of students in those majors to determine the “net private returns” of different majors (explained below). The authors make use of data from Florida, and, unfortunately, as with many such studies, the data for philosophy majors is lumped in with the data for religious studies majors under the heading “Philosophy.” Many people seem to believe that the earnings of philosophy majors are higher than those or religious studies majors (though I am not aware of aggregate data showing this); if true, philosophy would do even better on this measure. (UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Matty for reminding me of the Payscale site which indeed lists philosophy majors as earning more than religious studies majors.)

The study was motivated by proposals floated by politicians to encourage students to “pursue degrees in perceived high-return areas such as the STEM fields while suggesting that students think carefully before pursuing degree programs in liberal arts with perceived low returns. The idea is that by choosing higher-earning degree programs, students will help raise the return on public and private investments in higher education.” The authors note that often overlooked in these discussions is that “the costs of producing graduates or credit hours varies substantially by field.” They add:

Some majors may lead to high earnings but be costly to produce, offering lower net returns per graduate or per invested dollar than lower-earning but less costly majors. An understanding of net private returns (private returns net of instructional costs) may be valuable for policymakers seeking to maximize the efficacy of higher education spending… We find that costs per credit and per graduate vary by field, and that measures of earnings returns net of cost are in many cases significantly different from returns measured using labor market outcomes only.

For example, while engineering majors earn more than computer science majors, since engineering majors cost more to educate than computer science majors, the “net return” on computer science majors is higher than that of engineers. In general, they find:

Health and Engineering majors, where earnings returns are large on a per graduate basis, have per-dollar returns similar to those observed in education, math, philosophy, and language degrees, where earnings are much lower. The degrees that fare best on a per-dollar basis are business and computer science, which are both high-earning and relatively cheap. These majors have per-dollar earnings returns that are 60% to 80% higher than in education degrees. The degrees that fare worst are Architecture, Art, and the Physical Sciences, which are fairly expensive and have relatively low earnings; these majors have per-dollar earnings returns that are 20% to 30% below that for education. (p.17)

The whole study is hereQuartz has an article on the study here.

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Nino Kadic
Nino Kadic
4 years ago

I get that the point of articles like this one is to defend having philosophy in schools, but using net return as the sole measure of the worth of a major is very limited. Most philosophers I know aren’t in it for the money.Report

Shay Allen Logan
Reply to  Nino Kadic
4 years ago

Of course, philosophers aren’t the ones we’re directing our defenses of philosophy toward. I take it that part of why Justin posts things like this is so that, when we are defending the value of philosophy to folks like administrators, we have the type of information they’re going to be looking for available to us.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
4 years ago

what percentage of folks buying into undergrad degree programs are studying philosophy, I ask in part because I’m curious how it was decided that net-return is what admins will be looking for?Report

Jim
Jim
Reply to  Nino Kadic
4 years ago

I’m not in it for the money, but I kind of need it to avoid dying.Report

Chris M
Chris M
4 years ago

How is library science one of the best degrees by this metric? I thought it was supposed to be near the bottom by this metric…Report

Chris M
Chris M
Reply to  Chris M
4 years ago

*Are they just especially cheap to educate? (By this metric, I meant that I’d always heard it was a relatively bad investment…)Report

Robert Beekman
Robert Beekman
Reply to  Chris M
4 years ago

Library Science folks (yes cheap to educate) are apparently getting hired by (private) firms looking to organize and manage troves of digital information. Not just masters of the Dewey decimal system anymore.
Report

Matty
Matty
4 years ago

“Many people seem to believe that the earnings of philosophy majors are higher than those of religious studies majors (though I am not aware of aggregate data showing this); if true, philosophy would do even better on this measure.”

Check out the data here (on the Payscale, Inc. website): http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/majors-that-pay-you-back/bachelors. In general, philosophy majors earn significantly more than religion and religious studies majors.Report

Cynic
Cynic
Reply to  Matty
4 years ago

I know lots of philosophy majors who can’t get jobs. My guess is that philosophers go on to make lots of money provided that (a) they have useful connections in the business world, or (b) they get another degree.Report

corey
Reply to  Cynic
4 years ago

I know several philosophy majors who have been unable to find good jobs. I’ve been fortunate enough to not experience difficulty in this area. I do not wish to insinuate that unemployed folks with philosophy degrees are in a situation of their own creation – nor do I want to insinuate that I have found gainful employment through manipulation – but I do wish to say that I have used what I learned to navigate the job market and interview processes far better than some of the friends with STEM degrees. Communication and critical thinking are important areas of philosophy and in the interview process/job market. I feel that I have benefitted tremendously from using my critical thinking and ‘rhetorical’ skills to land good jobs in interesting and challenging operational roles for private companies.Report

John Howard
John Howard
4 years ago

This may be an ignorant question, but doesn’t the cost of a degree depend almost solely on a particular college/universities tuition? Which does or doesn’t depend on an individuals major?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  John Howard
4 years ago

It seems like what’s being compared here is the cost (to the university) of *providing* the degree vs the return (to the students) from getting the degree. Otherwise it faces just the problem you raise. But I’m a bit flummoxed why anyone would find that to be a relevant comparison, given the way universities currently price tuition. Report

Shay Allen Logan
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

I *think* the idea is this: say you need to justify keeping a philosophy program to an admin-sort. You can, using this data (which, as postdoc notes below, might be suspect) argue as follows: (a) I’m cheap to provide, and by providing me you (b) enrich the lives of students (in the most literal sense of that word!) fairly effectively. If that’s something the admin-type cares about and which resonates in the particular university culture you’re in, then perhaps the argument (backed up by the data) can help keep your program around.

I *don’t* think this is being presented as a silver-bullet cure-all for any question of the sort `why should we keep a philosophy program?’. And, being honest, there won’t be such an answer, as institutional priorities vary a lot, the personalities of decision makers vary a lot, and requirements from farther up the chain of command (e.g. state legislatures) vary a lot. But I imagine there are some folks out there who will find this type of data useful as part of the specific justifications they need to give to argue for keeping their particular program.Report

David Lu
David Lu
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
4 years ago

It’s a weird justification. Since faculty salary is one of the biggest instructional expenditures, departments which rely excessively on adjunct instructors will have greater “net returns” on this method of calculation. So are we to take this as ad-hoc justification that those departments are okay to over-rely on adjunct instructors since they produce high “net returns.” Report

Shay Allen Logan
Reply to  David Lu
4 years ago

Again, the point is that “we” aren’t supposed to be taking this as justification for anything. There are all kinds of philosophy departments in all kinds of places that are having to fight for their survival right now. They have to justify their existence *not to other philosophers,* but to folks with their eyes on various budgets. This is one way to make an argument to that might appeal to that sort of person.

As a philosopher, you might look at the data and draw the kinds of conclusions you’ve drawn. But the fact that the data might be troubling to philosophers is compatible with it being the sort of thing that philosophers who are in immediate trouble might want to appeal to when arguing with non-philosopher admin-sorts about why their program ought to be kept around. Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
4 years ago

Note: Payscale has small sample sizes and is based on self report (a selection bias). I wouldn’t place much credence in their numbers. Report

stillrambling
stillrambling
4 years ago

Is this something to be proud of? Maybe I’m reading it incorrectly, but it is bragging about the fact that Philosophy Instructors are some of the lowest paid instructors in all universities, even though the return on their particular investment is relatively high–not critiquing that reality, but bragging about it. (And, of course, unlike other fields, we accept the lower pay/increase in adjunct/contract work because there are not immediate options available to us like Boeing is for ME or Pfizer is for Chem–and it’s obvious we didn’t go into our field for the pay or respect in the first place, otherwise we would have done virtually anything else ever.)Report

Jonathan
Jonathan
4 years ago

One word: Gender. Every year articles appear celebrating how much money Philosophy majors make relative to the other humanities. And every year I have to remind people of the strong correlation between the majors, salary, and gender. Philosophy is far and wide the most male of all humanities majors. And, as we know, men make more money than women. So, before you get too excited about how lucrative Philosophy is, please realize you’re just celebrating the patriarchy. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jonathan
4 years ago

There was some discussion about this at Feminist Philosophers a couple of years ago; as I recall (on the data available then) the math didn’t really work out for that suggestion (i.e., the salary advantage of philosophy is too big to be explained by the ambient gender gap in salaries). Report

Alex Howe
4 years ago

Potential gender and pay issues relative to this finding are points well-taken. However, for me at a midwest public landgrant with a supermajority republican state leadership and a “free market” chancellor, this finding is plausibly useful. Forwarded to my chair, dean, and chancellor. Thanks! Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Alex Howe
4 years ago

if things there are like they are here in Iowa (also Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, etc) these kinds of arguments (like pointing out the returns on investments for early childhood education, healthcare, etc) are DOA. Report

Jessica
Jessica
4 years ago

I’m wondering how double majors are accounted for. About 65% of our philosophy majors are double majors, and I would bet that’s not atypical.Report