Want a degree in rhetoric? State Auditor Shad White questions whether the state should pay for it
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - In recent weeks, State Auditor Shad White has sparked debate with his social media posts on whether some college degrees should be funded using taxpayer dollars.
His office recently released a report adding more fuel to that fire, saying the state should dedicate more money to degrees like engineering and business, rather than fields like anthropology or drama.
The study, Plugging the Brain Drain: Investing in College Majors that Actually Work, was released this week.
“The purpose of this study was to give voters and taxpayers a sense of where they’re getting a big return on their investment when they’re spending money on higher education,” White said. “But also, we wanted younger people to read this study, too, so that they could see... ‘If I major in anthropology, the salaries that I could expect at the end of that degree are very low.’”
White argues the state should reconfigure how it funds college education, to ensure schools graduate a greater number of students in higher-paying majors, such as engineering or business, and recommends lawmakers convene a committee to look into the matter.
State funding accounts for about 20 percent of the total funding for public colleges and universities in the state. A much larger percentage of their annual funding comes from tuition and fees.
For fiscal year 2021, the University of Mississippi received $335 million in gross tuition and fees, compared to $87 million in state appropriations. Even after deducting allowances for scholarships and doubtful accounts, net tuition and fees were around $221 million for FY 2021, more than twice the state allocation.
White says Mississippi could look at other models that have been put in place in states like Texas, North Dakota, and West Virginia.
The idea is that more graduates in those fields will mean more higher-earning wage-earners - graduates who will not only be able to pay off their student loans but also pay more in taxes.
“His argument is compelling,” said David Keary, artistic director of Ballet Mississippi. “I’ve been talking to these kids who go into dance programs. I tell them to get a double degree because you’re going to come out with a dance BSA and not get anywhere with that.”
Keary said it’s advice that he followed when he was in college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Millsaps College but took as many business courses as he could. After that, he followed up by getting his juris doctorate from the Mississippi College School of Law.
“I don’t think there’s a perfect degree in college,” Keary continued, “and if kids are going to come out owing [a large] amount of money, why not get as much experience, dipping their toe into the big, cold water and seeing what other [fields] are about?”
The study looks at the median income in several fields, including engineering, construction management, nursing, and health. Recent graduates in those areas earn thousands of dollars more a year on average than all recent graduates on average.
Analysts attempted to look at median salaries in fields like Women’s Studies, African American/Black Studies, and German Language and Literature and found the job placement was so low that no median income data was available.
“If you major in rhetoric, you go to one of our universities and major in rhetoric... you can still go and get that major under my proposal, but I’m not sure that taxpayers should be paying for that degree, because we don’t get a lot out of it,” he said. “At the end of the day, the jobs that you would get are low-paying, and many of those folks are going to leave the state.”
Figures in the study don’t necessarily back up White’s claims.
According to the report, just 36 percent of all engineering grads and 42 percent of business grads from the 2015-2017 cohort were still working in Mississippi in 2020, compared to higher percentages of teachers and healthcare workers who earned less.
White said increasing the number of graduates in those high-value fields would increase the chance that more engineers, business majors, and healthcare majors stay.
“You give yourself a better chance of keeping those folks that our economy just clearly desperately needs,” he continued. “I think you have to couple that with an initiative to convince more of those graduates to actually stay here.”
But some argue that people’s contribution to society can’t be measured solely in dollars and cents.
“I would look at and ask questions about what type of society... we want to have,” said Francine Reynolds, artistic director for New Stage Theatre. “Is it just based on the economy? Or do we want to talk about the cultural life of society?”
“Eighteen of our full-time staff members have graduated with degrees in theater, and several of the people who work here at the theater graduated... from Mississippi colleges and universities. So, they’re very, very valuable to us.”
Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State University, says employers are looking for well-rounded students who are not only technically proficient but have communication skills and the ability to think critically.
“As Mississippi’s leading research university and one that takes pride in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – along with high-performance computing, data science, cybersecurity studies, agriculture and forestry, and business – MSU likewise is proud of our faculty and staff who help our students excel in the humanities,” he said in a statement.
White, who double majored in political science and economics, says students can still pursue their passions, but should also focus on getting a degree that’s practical.
“If you major in dance, and you get a degree in it, your salary expectations should be very, very low once you finish school. And also, there’s just not a ton of jobs in Mississippi,” he said. “So maybe, you should think about pairing that major with another major that is a little more practical so you can guarantee yourself a good job at the end of this.”
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