Yesterday a senior in high school, who very much wanted to study philosophy in college, came to me for advice, asking a familiar question: “What can I do with a philosophy degree?”
He didn’t need to be persuaded to study philosophy–that was clear. I thought he was simply looking for confirmation that such a decision wouldn’t be irrational. So I proceeded to talk about (as he nodded in agreement at every step) how philosophy helped one think clearly and creatively, organize one’s thoughts well, express one’s thoughts well in speech and in writing–and, because it was a demanding discipline (at least as it is taught at AMU), it would help a student acquire self-discipline and good work habits. I concluded by telling the young man that I knew many employers in the world of business, and that I knew from experience that someone with the qualities I had just described would have no difficulty finding eventually an interesting and well-paying job. Most employers would regard someone like that as a valuable find.
And if that weren’t so, then he could add on a year or two of graduate studies in a technical area, as my own son had done, who got a master’s degree in accounting after studying the liberal arts at Thomas Aquinas College, and now is working at a big four auditing firm.
The young man was not entirely consoled. What he next said revealed to me that his case was a little different from others I had dealt with, but one that was likely to become more common in the future: “But my family does not have much money, and it looks like I may need to borrow $15,000 per year to go to college …” I finished the sentence for him: “…for a total debt burden of $60,000, which is high even for these days of artificially low interest rates and (often) very generous terms of borrowing.”
In the back of my mind was the article I had read in the Journal last week about how a high student debt burden can be difficult for young people starting their adult lives and thoughts too about the country’s growing student debt bubble. I advised the young man to keep his indebtedness low, by taking a year off during college if necessary, and living at home and saving up $20 or $30K for the year; or by maybe asking relatives who had the means if they would be willing to serve as “patrons” of his studies. But these seemed either unattractive or remotely possible options.
I was beginning to share his discouragement and dismay, when a thought occurred to me. “Do you enjoy math and the sciences?” I asked him. He said that, yes, he did, very much. “Then this is what you should do,” I said, “go ahead and follow your heart’s desire, and major in philosophy. But then also do a double major, choosing either math, physics, chemistry, or biology as your second subject. Students with a solid training in those areas–not business, by the way!– walk into the highest paying jobs after college. With a very clear conscience I could tell you that it would not be imprudent to acquire a $60,000 total student debt if, besides philosophy, you majored in one of the accurate sciences.” The young man walked away cheerful and with a clear plan. And I was thinking, He’s on the path now to an even better college education, and a better philosophical education, than he had hoped for. Also, Talk about bringing good out of evil: imagine if student loans caused more students to study those subjects that really would help them get better jobs!