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Business advocacy groups should learn from the data which degrees are bad bets

Business advocacy groups should learn from the data which degrees are bad bets

Anna Miller
December 20, 2021

Idaho students, parents, businesses, and taxpayers rely on universities to produce graduates ready to contribute and compete in the workforce and lead fulfilling lives. Dozens of programs at public universities do so, but dozens more leave their students with dangerous levels of student loan debt and taxpayers on the hook when graduates default on their loans. Many of the worst performing programs are captured by diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) which does not contribute to student well-being and hinders the academic purpose of the university by creating an environment of intolerance and dishonesty. 

Public universities are subsidized by the government and have a special burden to demonstrate whether taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. The advocacy group Idaho Business for Education, however, has argued that Legislative endeavors to hold universities accountable are “discouraging” and “harmful to our state.” But those who purport to care about economic development need to differentiate between programs that make the state more competitive and those that present a financial risk to students and harm taxpayers. 

Our assessment of new data on graduate earnings and debt in Idaho from the U.S. Department of Education reveals graduate income two years after degree completion does not always justify the tuition they paid and loans they amassed. Among Idaho bachelor’s programs, several were assessed as “excellent” including engineering disciplines, business, and health care-related disciplines. Most associate degree programs are also successful. Such programs are offering a positive return on investment to the community and can be wisely expanded. 

The worst performing disciplines at the state's public universities are English literature, design and applied arts, history, anthropology, and sociology. Overall, our report identified 19 programs across all of Idaho’s public universities that graduate approximately 675 students per year with high risk or excessive debt. 

For example, the Intercultural/Multicultural and Diversity Studies program at the University of Idaho was one of six programs assessed as poor or terrible. Graduates have $26,000 in debt but are earning only $25,194 two years after graduation. 

Another eight programs were identified at Idaho State University: English, social work, sociology, anthropology, liberal arts (bachelors and associate programs), history, and geological sciences. The worst performing program in the state is the masters degree in student counseling and personnel services at Boise State University, where graduates have more than $57,000 in debt but are earning less than $35,000 annually two years after graduation. 

Sociology, anthropology, history, and special education at Boise State University were rated as mediocre, as well as sociology and history at the University of Idaho. 

Many of these worst performing and mediocre fields tend to be disproportionately dominated by left wing faculty and captured by DEI. As I have previously explained, the advancement of DEI, for example through ideologically discriminatory hiring practices, cut universities off from the whole market compromising academic excellence and competition. 

Overall, degree programs at Idaho’s public institutions aggregately rank 37 out of the 50 states in debt-earnings assessments among graduates. This poor return to taxpayers is occurring despite years of massive public investment in higher education. 

The legislature's $2.5 million budgetary cut to universities in 2021 is meager in proportion to the total higher education wallet. The cut may have encouraged universities' ideological agenda to go underground temporarily. But universities have neither expanded successful programs nor phased out those that are financially dangerous bets. Meanwhile, universities continue to spend millions of dollars on DEI administrators and bureaucracies. For example, University of Idaho’s chief diversity officer earns $141,586 and Boise State University’s director of the BUILD Program, which is dedicated to DEI, earns at least $105,287.

Parents, students, businesses, and taxpayers would benefit from investigating the value of  higher education. The circumstances of the university programs having diminishing returns to the economy today will continue and get worse. Hard data on student loan debt and post-graduation earnings should be used to supplement other important assessment measures including the growth of DEI, graduation rates, and life satisfaction. 

Idaho public officials, college administrators, and trustees have the opportunity to expand excellent programs contributing positively to the workforce and serving students well. Just as important is the recognition of the fact that failure to hold the worst performers accountable is a gross dereliction of duty to the public. Business advocacy groups should expect universities to run stronger programs if they want the public to pay for them. 

Anna K. Miller is education policy director at Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Center for American Education. She earned an M.A. in economics from George Mason University (2020). 

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