The Sum of All Salaries

Posted By Marilyn Hammond - 09/16/2013

My first job out of law school paid $15,000, pretty grim even by 1977 standards. That modest sum paid for a roach-infested apartment in Mt. Rainer, a used Duster with rust holes in the floor, and $90 a month in student loan payments that really stressed me out. Sallie Mae and PHEAA (the Pennsylvania college lending agency) were terrible beasts haunting my dreams.

And yet, I loved every minute of that adventuresome time in my life, and I didn't regret a single moment of my public interest work with the Street Law clinic at Georgetown. I saw my law school friends making a lot of money but they seemed quite miserable, for the most part.

I didn't go to college or law school to make money. I had bigger plans than that; I wanted to help people, change some lives, maybe find a corner of the world to change entirely. I have never defined my worth by money; even today, in my 25th year as a college president, I earn a lot less than most presidents make in their first year, but I don't regret that for a nanosecond. I'm having a lot more fun than most, and I feel hugely fulfilled in my work each day.

A great college education is far more than the sum of all salaries we earn after graduation. When did we lose our high hopes for personal transformation in higher learning? What cynic convinced us that the idealism of a life spent working in the public interest is worth much less than a life spent making money in furtherance of corporate interests?

The most pernicious movement yet to afflict higher education with the curse of metrics over mission is the eruption of studies and websites purporting to measure the value of a college education through the salaries of our graduates. Wonks who apparently only just discovered data mining have rushed to display their fancy new skills of data extraction in the production of lists and rankings with all kinds of mischievous and even debilitating effects.

The result is a dangerous distortion of values, a blatant rejection of the whole idea of service that many Catholic and other institutions of learning have tried to instill in our students for centuries. The metrics movement exalts the perverse idea that money is the only meaningful way to measure educational value, that salaries, not service, should be the goal of higher education. And, sadly, the Obama Administration is buying into this degrading game with plans for a new "rating" scheme that would tie the salaries of graduates to the federal estimate of an institution's worth.

The New York Times reported on one such dubious enterprise called PayScale, yet another college ranking outfit, this time ranking universities according to some data they found somewhere about the earnings of graduates.

The utter absurdity of this venture appears in this comment in the Times story:

"And there's a notable gender gap. Women's colleges rank especially low: Wellesley (U.S. News, 7) is 304; Barnard (U.S. News, 32) is 221; Smith (U.S. News, 20) is 455; and Bryn Mawr (U.S. News, 30) is 562. (A PayScale spokeswoman said that's because the women's colleges still don't produce enough graduates in engineering, science and technology, the fields that draw the highest salaries.)"

Excuse me? So, let's get this straight: because women's colleges have been about educating some of this nation's most effective, confident, powerful women leaders for, oh, 150 years or so, we now may as well fold up the tents and go home? We have educated the teachers, nurses, journalists, social workers, psychologists, artists, writers, lawyers, judges and mothers of countless communities, and we've had a few senators, congresswomen and even a Speaker of the House. And, by the way, we absolutely do educate scientists, engineers, mathematicians, surgeons and even astronauts.

Heck with all of that, according to PayScale, the tyrannical machine of data mining crushes all reasonable information to the contrary. I didn't check, but I suspect that PayScale has similarly damning evidence of the total waste of Catholic colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges, seminaries, art schools, and certainly, I must think, culinary institutes.

Shame on all of us. Go home and hang our heads. We're just educating the people who do most of the world's work, rather than earning most of the world's money.

What the heck is going on here? And why isn't everyone in higher education marching down Maryland Avenue with pitchforks and torches demanding that the Secretary of Education call off the wonks?

No. instead, it's probably quite likely that PayScale or something like that is already collaborating with Secretary Duncan on the new higher education rating system that President Obama believes will transform higher education into... what? A landscape of grim gray factories producing soul-less, vision-less, uninspired workers for the technological cause? Calling George Orwell....

And when the world has no more philosophers, writers, artists, poets, psychologists, social workers, counselors, teachers, nurses and public interest lawyers, what kind of society will we have then?

The movement to reduce all of higher education to the results of some massive number crunching exercise is an offense against true learning, a betrayal of the stewardship that the federal government should exercise far more carefully to protect the intellectual assets of the nation.

Sherman Dorn, a historian of education at the University of South Florida, recently wrote in

"Ratings and rankings are the crack cocaine of today's generation of education reformers and have been since the Reagan administration concocted a "wall chart" attempting to compare state educational performance. Our current president, his White House advisers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and many others cannot get the idea out of their heads -- that if we just find the right (magical) formula, we can push the education system to perform better."

So true. Addiction kills. It's obviously not working too well in K-12. The obsession with data will harm and even kill some excellent colleges because many of us do not fit the manufactured molds of the masters of data mining. Already, the obsession is demeaning and trivializing our missions, and misrepresenting reality, witness the comments about women's colleges, above.

I went to college as part of the great postwar educational diaspora of second and third generation immigrant children. We Baby Boomers were exemplifying the hopes and dreams of our parents in the Greatest Generation. Because of their focus and sacrifice, we became so much richer in spirit and material goods, more fulfilled and more advanced as human beings. Our parents understood the real purpose of college as a means to elevate our lives beyond their own experience.

My favorite photo of my father is at my law school graduation where he's wearing my Georgetown Law graduation tam and purple hood, holding aloft a bottle of champagne. He took a few courses on the G.I. Bill after the war, but the joyful burden of supporting seven kids stopped his college track, but he never stopped goading the rest of us onward and upward. Our college successes thrilled him.

My favorite photo of my mom is on her high school graduation day (Hallahan '39) proudly holding her diploma. The youngest of six in an immigrant family from Italy, she was the only one of her siblings to finish high school. She was so smart and would have been an exceptional student in college, but her family could hardly afford such a luxury in those pre-war days, so she went to work and was the star of the steno pool until she fell head over heels for that handsome Army captain. She loved learning and made sure we did, too. She was overjoyed when I got into Trinity because she so admired the women she knew who were Trinity graduates; she walked a little taller among the ladies at St. Colman's Church after that.

Upward mobility, intellectual refinement, social connections and the promise of a much better life --- these were all of the reasons why my parents and so many others who, themselves, did not go to college insisted that their children must do so. They understood, without question, that college was the route to a kind of success that they also aspired to attain, but that was often just beyond their grasp. They did not want us to struggle to get ahead the way they had to struggle. They wanted us to be financially secure, of course, but more, they wanted us to be emotionally mature and able to make significant contributions to our community wherever we settled.

Those same lofty aspirations motivate my students today at Trinity. I look at the joy and pride on the faces of students, mothers, grandmothers, uncles and siblings on opening day when their student is the first in their family to join the college community. I hear their loud cheers on graduation day when they lift up the hopes and dreams of generations as they lift their diplomas high over their heads.

Yes, we want them to be employed, to have good salaries and be economically secure through their lives. Of course we want that, and we have the data to show that our graduates by and large are very successful. We can present all the data you want, but the data is not the point.

But that's not why my students go to college. It's not why I went to college. It's not why my parents were so insistent on college for their children.

Higher education's leaders must stand up and speak out against the reductionist movement to debase the whole mission of higher learning. The collegiate experience is about the transformation of a whole life in advanced learning, the creation of knowledge for the good of society, the stimulation of innovation, the careful cultivation of the philosophy of living in freedom. Our graduates do get good jobs, and they earn far more as college graduates than if they had not attended. But that's not the real point.

The purpose of a great college education is far more than the sum of all of our salaries. The transformation of lives, opening of minds, elevation of families, expansion of intellect and soul has no pricetag. Engendering a true thirst for lifelong learning, imparting the ability to satiate that hunger in ongoing independent intellectual exploration has no metric.

Patricia McGuire
President, Trinity Washington University
September 16, 2013