How to Solve the ‘Welders vs. Philosophers’ Debate, the Crisis in Underemployment, and the Student Loan Debt Problem of Liberal Arts Majors
Religion & Liberty Online

How to Solve the ‘Welders vs. Philosophers’ Debate, the Crisis in Underemployment, and the Student Loan Debt Problem of Liberal Arts Majors

BrendleA most unlikely debate has erupted over Marco Rubio’s comment in last night’s debate that welders earn more money that philosophers.

It’s a strange controversy since, as Steven Wedgeworth said on Twitter, “There can’t really be this many philosophy majors.” He’s right, of course. But the debate isn’t really about which profession makes more money (at least I don’t think it is). It seems to be more a defense of the liberal arts in general. What is peculiar is that philosophy defenders are basing their argument on monetary grounds rather than pointing out the irrelevance of wages to the life of the mind.

As Anthony Bradley asked a few years ago, “When Did College Education Reduce To Making Money?

Our country’s narcissistic materialism has created a neurotic obsession with disparities between the incomes of individuals resulting in an overall devaluing of the learning goals and outcomes of what colleges exist to accomplish. There is a major disconnect here. I wonder if this explains why many parents do not want their children studying the humanities in college.

While I completely agree with Anthony about what the purpose of college should be (“a place where men and women are educated and formed into more virtuous citizens”), I think he’s overlooking how we got into this situation: College is priced like a luxury good but treated as a prerequisite for most forms of employment.

Unfortunately, the types of degrees that best fulfill the primary function of a college (e.g., liberal arts) are also the most likely to lead to underemployment.

A couple of years ago, Andy Whitman wrote an article for Image, “Starbucks and the Liberal Arts Major”, that highlighted the problem:

There was a time, as recently as the mid-1970s, when I was earning liberal arts degree number one in creative writing, when the conventional wisdom held that the mere possession of a college degree opened up shining vistas of middle-class respectability and privilege. You might not get rich, but you could buy a tract home in the suburbs and vacation at Myrtle Beach.

Now a college degree—at least a liberal arts college degree—will get you a barista job at Starbucks.

The cost of education has risen astronomically, and the value of that education, at least in terms of potential earning power, is more suspect and dubious than ever.

Question: how many lattes do you have to serve to pay off a $100,000 student loan? Answer: It’s a trick question. You’ll never pay off a $100,000 student loan making $7.00 per hour. A collection agency will repossess your iPhone, MacBook, guitar and Toyota Prius. It would repossess your tattoos if it could. You will end up living in your parents’ basement. I assure you that this is a prospect that frightens children and parents alike.

One quibble I have with Whitman is the idea that college graduates have $100,000 in student loan debt. The average debt is only – only! — $35,200. But that still takes a long time to pay off.

Let’s assume a recent grad makes $10 an hour for 40 hours a week, a weekly gross of $400. Once we deduct for FICA ($33.82), Social Security ($24.80), Medicare ($5.80), and state tax ($13.62 in AK), their net pay would be $321.96 or $1,384.42 a month. Let’s also assume they want to pay their debt off in 5 years. Without including interest, their monthly payment would be $797.76. The payment on their student loan would consume 58% of their take-home pay. No wonder they’re living in their parent’s basement.

How can parents encourage their children to pursue their passion without burying them in debt? I think I have a solution (one that I proposed on this site a few years ago): a homeschooling co-op for college-age liberal arts students.

Here’s how it would work: Instead of taking a part-time job making coffee, newly minted liberal arts graduates with BAs/MAs/PhDs would be hired as tutors making the same pay they’d get at their local Starbucks. For example, a lead barista in Washington, D.C. makes on average $8.86 an hour. So a tutor in the D.C. area would charge $8.86 per hour for their services.

Rather than paying tuition at a four-year college (average: $13,600 at public institutions, $36,300 at private not-for-profit institutions), students interested in getting a liberal arts education would simply pay tutors to teach them what they want to learn. For instance, if a student in the D.C. area wants to take the equivalent of 10 college classes a year (30 credit hours), they would pay the tutors the Starbucks rate ($8.86 per hour) for the equivalent classroom time (480 hours). The out-of-pocket “tuition” for this student would be $4,253 — an average savings of $9,347/$32,047 a year.

The single biggest drawback is that at the end of four years of tutoring the student won’t have a college degree in the liberal arts. But so what? If the purpose of getting a liberal arts education is to get an education, then why do you need a diploma? Is it needed to get one of the non-existent jobs that a liberal arts degree will help you land?

If the piece of paper is necessary then the student can supplement their education by getting a degree in a vocational trade or practical subject like business, accounting, medical assisting—or welding!. It may take them a bit longer to pursue both tutoring and vo-tech classes, but they were probably going to spend 6-8 years in college and graduate school anyway.

Still, there seems to be something missing, doesn’t there? If a liberal arts degree were really about getting a liberal arts education than this proposal would seem commonsensical. So why doesn’t is seem more appealing?

I believe the reason is that many Americans (at least those of us who would get a liberal arts degree) want to be able to pursue our own peculiar interest, get a piece of paper that testifies to our accomplishments, and to have the job market reward us for our choice.

It seems almost unfair that the only work our B.A. in Medieval philosophy qualifies us for involves grinding Arabica beans. Indeed, a liberal arts education seems to be useless in helping us answer one of life’s most important questions: Why can’t we have everything we want in just the way we want it?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).