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College degrees can't be measured in dollars alone

The transition from college to a career can be daunting. Many 22-year-olds struggle as they are faced for the first time with the prospect of paying bills and eking out a living on their own. It's even more difficult for those hoping to begin a life in the arts. I should know.

Three-and-a-half years ago, I was finishing my first year as an economics and math major at an elite liberal arts school in Minnesota when I realized I needed to make a change. I liked my classes and my grades were good, but my heart wasn't in what I was doing. I had left theater behind in high school to focus on a "real" career, and I found myself missing the sense of purpose acting gave me. After much soul-searching, I decided to transfer to Southern Methodist University in Dallas to pursue training as an actor and playwright.

My parents were understandably skeptical: Was it really wise to abandon a well-paying field like economics for an uncertain future in the theater? After all, no one goes into the arts for the money. When I graduated this past month, I was fortunate to have a job lined up at a prestigious regional theater. The pay? Housing and a $50 weekly stipend.

My parents still worry, as do many parents around the country who have just watched their children graduate with degrees in the arts and humanities. Those of us holding the diplomas, looking at the world for the first time through the eyes of independent adults, have some questions of our own. Will we be able to survive in a tepid economy? Might we have been better off taking fewer creative writing courses and more business and engineering? What the hell were we thinking, following our dreams?

These fears seem to have been confirmed by a recent report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. The report, titled, "What's It Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors," analyzes the careerlong earnings potential of 171 undergraduate majors. The findings are not surprising: Those who major in fields like engineering and business make on average significantly more than those with degrees in areas such as the humanities or social work.

My parents' hesitation about the financial wisdom of my educational switch is borne out: The median annual wage for someone with an undergraduate degree in computers and mathematics is more than half again as much as that for someone who majored in the arts. "You want your child to pursue their dreams, but at some point they've got to wake up and make a living," said one of the report's authors.

I have no quibble with the report's findings or methodology; it merely provides data for a phenomenon that anecdotal evidence has long suggested. Nor do I begrudge my higher-earning peers their salaries. Although I sometimes wish our society devoted as many resources to creating great literature and art as it did to making iPads and video games, I understand that the nature of supply and demand makes this an unrealistic hope.

But I take exception to the notion that the report somehow proves one degree more useful or valuable than another. Earning potential is important, but it is not the only measure of a degree's worth. The fulfillment a field gives its students, the way it broadens their hearts and minds, is just as vital. The arts and humanities represent the best in all of us. The great ages of human history have been known not only for their commerce and feats of engineering but also for their literary and artistic achievements. We celebrate ancient Greece for both Euclid's geometry and Aristotle's Poetics. It's this vastness of pursuits that makes the human experience so exciting. Why shouldn't we study something so essential?

College students declaring their course of study must be aware of the financial benefits of each major. But they also should think about what they'd love to wake up and do every morning, how they can best contribute to society, and what it means to be truly fulfilled.

And so I return to the questions I asked myself earlier. I have no doubt my future holds its share of Ramen dinners and single-digit bank statements. But I also know I have chosen a life that I can look forward to with an open heart, one that will let me make my own mark on the world.

Nothing could be more valuable than that.

Nathaniel French, a St. Petersburg native and 2011 graduate of Southern Methodist University, is preparing to begin a career as an actor and playwright.

College degrees can't be measured in dollars alone 05/30/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 30, 2011 5:02pm]
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