Shelling Out

America’s Clouded College Thinking

Students and parents think college is a good investment, but a new survey shows they’re willing to spend way too much on degrees that provide little earning potential.

07.23.13 5:59 PM ET

College is having something of a branding crisis. It’s increasingly expensive, some of the most popular majors are declining in market value, and the four-year degree has become more of a cultural rite of passage than a gateway to the American dream. But yet, as a new study from Sallie Mae proves, it’s still considered a necessary investment in a teen’s future by parents and students alike.

According to the results of Sallie Mae’s sixth annual survey How America Pays for College, 86 percent of students and 85 percent of parents strongly agree that college is an investment in the future—the highest proportion since 2010. More than 60 percent of both parents and students said the impetus to attend college has more to do with earning more money and getting the job they want than with family expectations or because it’s part of an antiquated ideal of upward mobility or freedom through education.

“Faith in college has remained strong … and worry has been declining,” says Sarah Ducich, one of the authors and senior vice president for public policy at Sallie Mae. The survey found that parents are much less worried today than they were in 2009, at the peak of the recession, regarding everything from how to pay for college to whether tuition will rise to whether loans will be available. They are more willing to stretch their budgets to pay for four years of higher ed, too.

But they’re not necessarily smart about choosing the best investment in terms of a degree. The most interesting revelation in the survey’s data reveals that while students and parents may be signing up for four years to chase a more moneyed or career-focused future, some are paying more and going further into debt to finance careers with relatively lower earning potential. At the savvy end of the spectrum are engineering majors, who spent an average of $25,639 on college last year and paid 13 percent of that from borrowed funds. The average starting salary for an engineering major, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers? $62,655. Meanwhile, at the other end of ROI spectrum are the visual and performing arts majors that coughed up an average of $19,849 for last year—30 percent of which came from borrowed funds. The average art major earned a starting salary of $33,800.

To put it simply, art majors are paying a little less out-of-pocket every year, on average, but borrowing nearly twice as much money and will likely earn half of the starting salary compared with their engineering peers. They are paying more to earn less.

Based on the data, there’s not a strong correlation between how much is borrowed and the average annual cost across eight different degree classifications. But there does seem to be a trend that majors with higher prospective earnings borrow less as a percentage of total cost than those who will earn relatively higher starting salaries. In the case of engineering majors, this could have to do with a plethora of scholarship options, especially on a per-student basis, or other funding opportunities such as the Frank W. Olin College of Engineering, which covers half the tuition costs for all students.

Business and professional majors (education, health, law) are all paying around the same every year, but business majors are borrowing 14 percent of the cost while those getting professional-type undergrad degrees are borrowing 23 percent.

The largest percentage of survey respondents (17 percent) were on a professional course of study, in education, law, medicine, or health care, followed by math/science and social sciences (each 15 percent), and business (12 percent). In the single digits were liberal-arts majors (8 percent), visual and performing arts (5 percent) and engineering (7 percent).

As college costs and college loan interest rates continue to climb, the new data on which students are borrowing the most illustrates the clear dichotomy between what students and parents think they are buying and what they are getting. They say they are looking at college as an investment, but arts majors are taking on huge debt and risk to get an education, while engineers and entrepreneurial majors are making a less costly venture with a huge likelihood of return.