Expensive introductory textbooks? Check. A more refined wardrobe to impress potential new friends? Check. Self-conducted cost-benefit analysis of majors with their average post-graduate earnings to determine an academic path before struggling through a basic economics class? Probably not.
Reflecting on their own experiences, one outgoing University of Wisconsin-Madison student and a recent alumnus question the impact of a bill circulating through Congress that would mandate universities publish those figures.
Having garnered bipartisan support since first introduced by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in February 2012, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2013 spurred sister legislation in the United States House of Representatives as a bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
A key stipulation in the package aims to supply prospective students with the “tools needed for a more complete picture of the value of their education,” according to a statement from Wyden’s office. One proposed tool would require every college and university submit the annual salary amounts and specific degrees of each alumnus to public, state-run databases.
Inside Higher Ed reporter Libby Nelson wrote on Feb. 6, 2013 that oppositional forces denounce the simplistic display of such complex information because it stands to misrepresent the nuanced investment returns various fields of study appreciate. For example, Nelson said people who graduate with humanities majors often earn less than their peers initially but later make up for that income gap.
UW-Madison 2006 graduate Ben Schumaker said having access to expected financial outcomes when choosing his major would not have altered his academic course.
“I couldn’t have cared less about how much money I was going to make,” Schumaker said. “I was much more interested in doing something that was meaningful to me.”
However, Schumaker is quick to disclose the unorthodox nature of his career path–he founded a non-profit organization called the Memory Project to serve neglected children–and said he understands how unique financial situations constrain students’ individual considerations.
Schumaker also said rising tuition rates thwart adventurous professional endeavors and dampen the entrepreneurial spirit he deems fundamental to a healthy economy.
“It’s scary to hear some of the statistics about how it's getting harder and harder to pay for college and the debt that people come out with ... they're just going to be locked into a path of work, work, work to pay down that debt,” Schumaker said. “In a way I think it stifles creativity.”
According to College Board, 57 percent of college seniors graduated with student loan debt in 2011, at an average of $25,000 per loanee.
Nonetheless, UW-Madison senior Ian Frye, said he too anticipates the proposed database would have minimally impacted the trajectory of his studies or his overall college satisfaction.
Rather, Frye credits his success to zeal, an interdisciplinary learning approach and a close proximity to peers with diverging intellectual interests.
“I think that’s what the real world will be all about, is working with a diverse set of people and synthesizing ideas from each other and combining ideas,” Frye said.
In fact, Frye said being motivated strictly by money would have kept him from exploring UW-Madison’s offerings when he was an undeclared freshman, denying him the most valuable aspects of his education.
Frye examined hydropower and social dynamics through a Buddhist lens while studying abroad in Bhutan, which compelled him to blend an international relations major with environmental studies, immensely expanding his undergraduate experience.
“Inter-cultural communication I think is also huge, and I’ve definitely gained that,” Frye said. “As far as technical skills? I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Schumaker jokes in hindsight about how unnecessary his fixations with achieving perfect grades and choosing the correct major turned out to be. In fairness, Schumaker said he never approached academia with a clear vision for his future and therefore graduated without a good sense of how he wanted to contribute to society.
“That's why I just went and decided to go do some volunteering in Guatemala,” Schumaker said. “And sure enough in that year ... I sort of came upon the idea for what I've ended up doing my whole career.”
The Memory Project, started by Schumaker, pairs underprivileged and orphaned youth with art students, who then paint a portrait of the child as a keepsake to “help the kids see themselves as works of art,” according to the organization’s website.
Although Schumaker is among the minority of college graduates who develop their own careers, he believes maintaining a certain level of perspective can be applied universally.
“In the scope of your entire life, that stuff that ends up on your transcript isn’t as important as the overall experiences you gain in college: the people that you meet, the ideas you’re exposed to, the passion you develop for a certain line of work or a certain social cause or a certain field of study,” Schumaker said.
While Frye agrees, he said he also thinks the university could be more helpful in securing futures for current and incoming students.
Frye said the emerging local technology sector presents the perfect platform to develop collaborative partnerships and connect students with internships to give them the practical knowledge about what to expect post-graduation. Madison’s longstanding prioritization of government and education also present comparable opportunities for students on the other end of the disciplinary spectrum, according to Frye.
Despite relative uncertainty about his future, Frye said he will confront it confidently because UW-Madison has more than rewarded the cost of his education.
“Comparatively, to other public schools, yes, I definitely think we get the most out of what we pay for,” Frye said.
But the national story reads slightly differently, he added.
“As a whole, I don’t think students are getting enough out of their money for their college education,” Frye said.
The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2013 has been read on the Senate floor twice and now sits in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions.