A recent alumni survey conducted for the UNC system received some good analysis from News & Record Staff Writer John Newsom in his “The Syllabus” column.

He draws attention to the fact that only 46% of UNC system graduates (and 36% of grads nationwide) feel their education was worth the cost. That cost has grown dramatically in the last 30 years (up 163% adjusted for inflation), and the burden of paying for that cost has shifted onto students as states have disinvested from their support of public higher education. Most students now graduate with a staggering amount of debt.

We know the cost of college has grown, but how do we measure the worth? These days the preferred method is to look at lifetime earnings of graduates compared with those without a degree. On that measure, a college graduate earns about a million dollars more over his or her entire lifetime than a high school graduate. Even with the high cost of college, it still represents about a 15% return on investment. Not bad.

But as we dig deeper, that picture looks less clear. Some majors (STEM, health care, business) do substantially better than others (humanities, arts, education, social services). The difference in lifetime earnings between the highest-paying college majors and the lowest-paying majors is $3.4 million — a much larger gap than between college and high school graduates. But at most colleges, all majors pay the same tuition, regardless of their earning potential. So at least for some majors at some institutions, the return on investment for college is negative.

Should we measure the worth of college degrees only in dollars? What about the traditional mission of colleges to develop well-rounded graduates who can think logically, express themselves clearly and have a grounding in a range of subjects that helps make them better citizens? This was traditionally addressed with the core curriculum. The core varied from one institution to another, but typically it involved a course or two in seven areas: composition; literature; foreign language; history or civics; economics; math; and science. Seven courses out of a typical 40 needed to get a degree. Seven courses to help make graduates better citizens.

But with many degree programs today, seven courses are just too much. Often they are squeezed out in favor of even more courses that are “labor market-connected.”

A survey found that 98% of colleges today fail to require a course in at least one of the seven traditional core areas, and 63% of colleges require courses in three or fewer of the core areas. College today is less a place to develop young minds and more a supplier of workforces to large corporations. Except that the corporations don’t pay to have their workforces trained — the workforce does. And the average worker today takes 21 years to pay off his or her student debt.

Here’s a radical notion. Why don’t we split colleges in two: a vocational university for STEM, health care and business education, and a public university for humanities education. Vocational universities would receive no government support — no government grants, no loan guarantees for students. But focusing on turning out an excellent workforce, the better ones should have no trouble attracting corporate grants to support their mission. Students should have no problem securing loans with their excellent earning prospects. Freed from the fiction they provide a well-rounded education, they could pack in more career-oriented courses, or alternatively cut programs to three years, reducing student debt load at graduation.

Public universities would be fully financed by the government — all students would go tuition-free. They would get the kind of well-rounded education that economists recognize as a “positive externality” — it benefits society to have well-educated citizens in the humanities, but those citizens can’t necessarily secure high-paying jobs to justify the expense. And the notion of government-financed education is not so radical in this country anyway. The military trains tens of thousands of people in useful job skills every year.

Maybe a less radical solution can be found, but without some kind of reform, I’m afraid a humanities degree is going to become a luxury for the children of the wealthy.

Make sure you never miss our editorials, letters to the editor and columnists. We’ll deliver the News & Record's Opinion page straight to your inbox.

Load comments