Higher Education

Expensive college degrees don’t always pay off

September 28, 2017

Cody Ray Milner

During the 2017 regular legislative session, Higher Education Chancellor Glen Johnson penned an opinion article warning that “a college degree could become financially out of reach for some Oklahomans at a time when it has never been more valuable.”

Johnson’s own degree has clearly proved valuable: his salary as a state employee is higher than the President of the United States. But for many Oklahoma students, a higher education degree may already cost too much even as the value of many degrees are questionable at best.

The average four-year college degree in the United States now costs $130,000, with roughly $40,000 of that paid for with student loans. Johnson and Oklahoma’s Higher Education Regents are quick to promise that an investment in a degree will pay off (for tuition payers and taxpayers) by dramatically increasing future earnings. They point in particular to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, where the average salary is nearly double the average pay for all occupations. Yet less than one in five Oklahoma graduates earns a degree in this area.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, workers in STEM fields earn an average salary of $87,570. The national average for all occupations is $48,320. These fields are growing rapidly, with over 81,000 STEM jobs expected in Oklahoma by 2018, according to a report from the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

Oklahoma’s higher education institutions produce STEM graduates at dismal rates when compared to workforce demand. Just 18.3% of Oklahoma’s 2015-2016 college degrees and certifications were awarded in STEM fields, with imperceptible increases from the previous five years.

The remaining 81.7% of Oklahoma’s non-STEM graduates average annual pay of $45,700. This is not only below the national average salary for all occupations, but also less than the average earnings of career technology school graduates. Social science majors earn an average of $35,000 per year, yet Oklahoma’s public universities and colleges award these degrees at a higher rate than computer science and engineering technology combined.


Those salary levels mean Oklahoma graduates in non-STEM fields will take longer to pay off student loans. They will also pay less in taxes. Chancellor Johnson and the university presidents have proven all too eager to increase the overall cost of higher education (along with their own salaries) repeatedly. They pass the cost on to students and Oklahoma taxpayers. But they seem to be failing at encouraging students to earn the most valuable degrees.