'Is College Worth It?'

Too many people are going to college, according to William J. Bennett and David Wilezol, authors of the new book "Is College Worth It?"

That statement flies in the face of the American Dream, which calls for people to go to college, work hard and rise higher on the economic ladder.

Yet, the two argue, "Too many students are studying irrelevant material that leaves them ill-equipped in the job market. Too many students are paying too much for tuition and are left holding massive amounts of debt."

Bennett and Wilezol list several majors that likely will land graduates in the poor house, including anthropology, fine arts, philosophy, religious studies, film, photography and graphic design.

The two note that China soon will begin eliminating majors in which the employment rate for graduates falls below 60 percent for two consecutive years.

They don't advocate that approach here, but do argue that American students should redirect their attention to the so-called STEM majors, which focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

In 2009, twice as many people graduated with degrees in the fine and performing arts than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined.

"We don't intend to demean these majors, but we wish to illustrate where students are directing their resources and efforts while well-paying and emotionally fulfilling jobs go begging," Bennett and Wilezol write.

The two contend that many students are pursuing degrees that might be personally interesting and fulfilling, but leave them without skills to get jobs.

"To help raise awareness of which majors pay what, students would be best served by being exposed late in their high school years or early in their college careers to detailed data on each major's employment rate a year after graduation and the average salary of each discipline, perhaps as a condition of a school certifying a student loan," they write.

In state university systems, Bennett and Wilezol argue that only a few universities in each state — not all of them — should offer majors such as anthropology.

In cases where students are pursuing STEM majors, Bennett and Wilezol state that it's almost always worthwhile to go to college.

The top 10 majors by mid-career earnings are all STEM-related. They are petroleum engineering, aerospace engineering, actuarial mathematics, chemical engineering, nuclear engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, applied mathematics, computer science and statistics.

To encourage students to pursue those careers, America should reduce tuition for STEM majors. Some states are already developing reduced tuition programs for students majoring in geology, chemistry, computer science, information systems or math, Bennett and Wilezol note.

"This kind of reform — one that links students' decisions to major in competitive disciplines with reduced tuition — is a serious step in addressing both the crippling cost of college and America's skills shortage," they write.

They also note that there are many two-year associate's degrees that can lead to well-paid, in-demand jobs — providing a shortcut for those who don't want to go to college for four years.

Good careers typically requiring associate's degrees include radiation therapist, dental hygienist and engineering technician.

For people who forgo college, Bennett and Wilezol are not advocating that they resign themselves to low-skill factory work or burger flipping.

Instead, they should seek vocational training and apprenticeships for in-demand careers such as plumbing and welding, which can yield solidly middle-class incomes.

"Is College Worth It?" is a tough pill to swallow for people who love the arts and humanities.

But it could help students gain a more accurate understanding of how the choices they make for college affect their future financial well-being.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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