Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

The true cost of college

Jane Hao

During the peak of college applications, the seniors in my high school buzzed with conversation about future plans. Every time the words “philosophy major” fell out of my mouth, inevitably the response was to inquire what I planned on doing with the degree. Although I appreciated my friends looking out for me, I couldn’t help but feel my choice of major lacked respect because of its unperceived utility. 

In the past, universities were places where students gathered to debate ideas, pursue research driven by curiosity and immerse themselves in their academic interests without constant worry about return on investment. 

Economics professor Michael Brandl recounts his college experience and how it was viewed during his undergraduate in 1986.

 “College education is there to get you to think, to be able to solve problems, to try things and if you make an error, you’re living in this protected world of the university where you’re allowed to make mistakes,” Brandl said.

Today, greater importance is placed on income, and success has come to be defined almost entirely in terms of financial gain. 

“The tuition has played a big role in this, students and especially parents focus almost exclusively in terms of the very short term. Economists call this hyperbolic discounting,” Brandl said. “People irrationally place a much heavier emphasis on immediate benefits and costs as opposed to costs and benefits that occur well into the future.” 

The shift in the college dynamic isn’t particularly the student body’s fault. A USN article outlines an estimated 56% increase, adjusted for inflation, over the past 20 years in in-state tuition and fees at public universities. It’s no wonder students today prioritize the monetary returns a degree can give them. 

“With a college education, the payoffs really come over a person’s lifetime,” Brandl said.

“Not just in terms of annual income, but in terms of everything from the probability of being incarcerated, to life expectancy, all of these positive things that come about with more education.” 

I had initially majored in philosophy on the pre-law track, but after conversations with both my parents, I feared a lack of job security in a world where I didn’t end up pursuing law. Only a little later, I added an economics major. 

Students can feel compelled to choose practical majors like business, engineering or computer science because these fields offer better job security and higher earning potential. An article published by the Journal of Public Economics found that the presence of student debt can cause graduates to choose significantly higher-paying jobs, rather than lower paid “public interest” jobs. 

When income becomes the metric to decide occupation, it can easily cause a misallocation of resources.

“People now view it as little more than corporate job training,” Brandl said. “It has a secondary effect that is pushing students into studying things that they may not be well suited for, and that they certainly don’t enjoy.” 

Fewer students follow their innate artistic talents and creative dreams because these pursuits seem unlikely to provide financial stability. Countries like the U.S. used to preach for a world where each individual could define success for themselves. But it’s hard to enjoy your passions if they may put you thousands of dollars in debt. 

Of course young people need marketable skills to attain economic security. But college should also be a time for intellectual exploration, an opportunity for young thinkers to follow their interests and develop their unique potential. 

The enormous costs of college are forcing students, like me, to re-evaluate our dreams. I picked the philosophy major because of my passion for literature and argumentation, but I bowed to financial reality and added a more “practical” major. Sometimes, the greatest cost of college is not just financial, but the sacrifice of what we truly desire to be passionate about. 

Narwekar is a philosophy and economics sophomore from Coppell, Texas.

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