When recruiting football players, one of our alma maters tells student-athletes and their families that choosing a university is a “40-year decision.” Real-world experience shows this 40-year decision applies to all students choosing a pathway after high school.
Georgians with a college degree on average earn about twice what folks with only a high school diploma earn: about $91,000 per year vs. about $45,000 per year. So, Georgia students should seriously consider attending college if they have the interest and academic standing.
Once in college, their major can also affect students’ economic and social well-being for decades to come. The choices of where to go to college and what major to pursue can be daunting, especially for first-generation college students.
Americans currently have more than $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. While President Joe Biden recently announced a plan for taxpayers to cover some of that debt, it is not clear he has the Constitutional authority to do so. Even if American taxpayers cover some student debt, it would be better if students could avoid precarious financial situations when obtaining higher education. Students need realistic expectations about what college costs—and what college degrees will mean for their future income.
Fortunately, the University System of Georgia has a new online tool that allows students and their families to get comprehensive, up-to-date information on the economic returns to specific majors at each public university in Georgia. The website, Georgia Degrees Pay, is available at: https://www.usg.edu/georgia-degrees-pay.
On Georgia Degrees Pay, students and their parents can find information about each major offered at each public university in Georgia, including the average earnings for graduates one, five and 10 years after graduation. Other student success measures are available as well.
Students and families should use the information at Georgia Degrees Pay wisely, because many factors affect earnings after college, including whether a graduate lives in a big city or rural area. Many majors that yield high earnings are not a good fit for all students. For example, electrical engineers are paid well (almost $111,000 a decade after graduation), but that would be a poor major for someone with different interests and strengths. That said, the data show not only average earnings, but also ranges of earnings by major. Surely, students whose interests and talents are well-suited for specific majors stand to earn more relative to students less suited.
This level of transparency is an example of good government at its best—providing accurate and timely information to current and future students so they can make informed decisions. For example, a 2018 survey found that 57% of ninth-grade students overestimate the cost of attending a public university in their state by more than a 25 percent. Thus, some qualified students who would truly benefit from higher education may not even consider it because they incorrectly perceive the cost as much higher than it is. Yet some other students, especially Black and Hispanic students, significantly underestimate the cost of college. To address these issues, Georgia Degrees Pay also provides information on the average cost of attendance at each Georgia public university.
Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia are two of the best values in American higher education, and living at home while attending a local university or technical college is a low-cost option due to the HOPE Scholarship and HOPE Grant programs.
Moving forward, we have two hopes. First, Georgia’s technical colleges are a great option for many students, and the Technical College System of Georgia should provide the same information on future earnings, costs and student success for their colleges, majors and programs.
Our second hope is that all Georgia high school students use Georgia Degrees Pay to analyze which universities, colleges and majors are the best fits for them—and the best value in terms of costs and benefits. Choosing a major and earning a degree after high school truly have “40-year” implications for students’ economic, civic and personal futures. Students should visit colleges, talk to professors and alumni, and use other means to help them choose. Thankfully, Georgia Degrees Pay gives them another valuable tool to help them make the best 40-year decision given their unique talents and interests.
Benjamin Scafidi, Greg Phelan, and John Thompson are professors of economics with the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University. Scafidi is also a senior fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.