College Education, and the Specious Correlation Between Major and Success
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
College Education, and the Specious Correlation Between Major and Success
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
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Conservatives rightly decry the Lefty tendency to group people by race, gender, class, and all manner of other factors that only distinguish humans in the most surface of ways. The members of the Right would prefer that people be judged as individuals. They’re correct.

The problem is that they don’t always abide their own deeply held views. One area in which this is apparent is with education, and in particular college education. Desperate to prove that generally Left-leaning colleges and universities are ripping off unwitting students (conservatives have adopted the Lefty tendency to find a victim behind every tree), they point to collegiate majors and the supposedly negative earnings implications of education foisted on kids who’ve suffered the allegedly predatory ways of higher education. And they claim they have “studies” to prove this narrative.

Yes, conservatives “group” individuals too when it serves narrow political purposes. Recently Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity research fellow Preston Cooper conducted one such study in which he “calculated the return on investment for nearly 30,000 different bachelor’s degree programs.” From this Cooper was “able to compare the net boost in lifetime earnings students get from each college degree.” Such a study misses the point precisely because it ignores the individual, all the while vastly overstating the role of collegiate learning in relation to future earnings.

Really, what does the learning in a specific “major” have to do with it? Just to pick out one random American success story, does anyone seriously think Michael Eisner’s major at Denison University had anything to do with his eventual multi-billion dollar turnaround of Disney? Someone as formidable as Eisner plainly wasn’t formed by what he learned at Denison, nor would it have mattered if he’d opened a book the whole time he was there. A business major (assuming Denison had one) versus art history would be of no consequence for someone possessing Eisner’s remarkable vision.

Eisner notably came up under Barry Diller. Diller lacks a college degree. In that case, did Diller ascend to billionaire status precisely because his mind wasn’t clouded by all the Lefty and “socialist” viewpoints taught on campus, or was Diller, like Eisner, born with skills that just can’t be taught? Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine that Diller would have achieved any less had he spent four years as a Greek mythology major versus doing nothing. In sporting parlance, you can’t coach speed.

To some degree Cooper acknowledges that when it comes to education, there are at least outliers. In his words, some “students defy the averages. Not every engineering graduate will earn a six-figure salary, and some music majors will get rich.” But even when Cooper is sort of correct, he reverts to educational mysticism. Following the line about music majors getting rich is the correct but misleading assertion that it’s “impossible to predict how demand for various skills – and hence the salaries for associated majors – will shift.” Which is for Cooper to near completely miss the point.

Does he really think that college majors inform actual success in the marketplace; that music majors will attain great riches due to shifts in the marketplace? Cooper’s theorizing implies that what’s taught on college campuses has actual relevance in the real world of work. Which is highly unrealistic. Really, what sort of wisdom imparted by professors would have any kind of marketable relevance in the money economy? Conservatives in particular owe us an answer to this question given their tendency to claim (probably correctly) that most college professors swing Left as is. So what knowledge is it that these often hysterically anti-business professors are imparting?

More realistically, a desire to tie college major to commercial achievement speaks to a desire to find correlation where there isn’t. Genius quite simply can’t be taught. Think Eisner and Diller again, or think your favorite billionaire today. Would it really matter what Jeff Bezos majored in? Who at Princeton was “teaching” an all-new way of meeting the needs of retail customers? Particularly when it comes to entrepreneurial success, obviously the biggest driver of it is an ability to see a commercial future entirely opposite that which exists in the here and now, after which this person will have to possess preternatural drive and courage in order to pursue what the wise among us (including college professors) will dismiss as wholly absurd.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that Bezos got into Princeton. What he learned there arguably was of little or no consequence. See above. But it probably didn’t hurt his post-collegiate search for work and his eventual search for venture capital that he’d attended Princeton instead of Glassboro State. Yet even with the top schools, Cooper glosses over the real meaning of admittance in order to focus on majors as though classroom learning actually shapes tomorrow’s workers for good or bad. As Cooper puts it, a computer science degree at Harvard “has an expected value of over $3 million,” while the same school’s “ethnic and gender studies program leaves its students worse off by around $47,000 annually, according to my estimates…” All of which proves what?

Once again it seems Cooper is deducing all the wrong things from his numbers. Is the instruction at Harvard in computer science that much better than it is in ethnic studies, or is someone who chooses computer science as a major the kind of person who would make all manner of other personal and career choices much more associated with real world success? Along these lines, what if noted Harvard dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg had pursued “ethnic studies” while in Cambridge? Does anyone seriously think that they’d be worse off “by around $47,000 annually” thanks to lousy learning that consigned them to average status for life? Readers know the answer.

Much as conservatives want to tie achievement to classroom learning and “majors,” the reality is quite different. Individuals succeed for all manner of reasons, and none of them have much do with what they learned during four largely wasted (literally and figuratively) years on campus.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors ( His new book is titled When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason. Other books by Tamny include They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers, The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at  

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