Most days, Douglas Webber can be spotted in class using Legos and pipe cleaners to visualize economics to his students.
The displays make his classes more engaging and allow him to show more simply how to analyze data on income disparities between college students, he said.
“These are the types of things that I can illustrate with Legos, but it’s really real-world stuff that you have to think about when you’re evaluating research,” added Webber, an economics professor and researcher.
On other days, Webber can be found testifying before the United States House Committee on Education and Labor about college affordability and financial aid, like he did last month. The hearing took place as Congress continues to consider reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which strengthens educational resources and federal funding available for financial aid for college students.
Webber presented to the House one day after the FBI uncovered a national college admissions scandal, which involved dozens of wealthy parents and celebrities allegedly bribing elite colleges to admit their kids.
The scandal, which was widely discussed at the hearing, sparked conversations about topics Webber focuses on in his research, like the value of a college degree and when and how a college education pays off, he said.
Parents allegedly spent up to $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admission into schools like Yale University and the University of Southern California. But the money wasn’t worth it, Webber said.
“On average, the answer’s ‘No.’ That paying the amount of money that these people were paying, you’re not getting that much return for it,” added Webber, who is also the director of graduate studies in the Economics Department.
Last year, Webber studied the impact of layoffs on working college students, the interstate mobility of recent college graduates and the distribution of lifetime earnings by major.
In his upcoming research, Webber found students’ majors matter two times more than what college they attend. He also found students majoring in fields with high workforce demand, like engineering, at less selective colleges earned more than students in other majors at more competitive colleges.
While certain majors earn more on average than others, it may not always be true at every school, Webber added.
Veronika Konovalova, a junior mathematical economics and political science major in Webber’s Economics of Education and Human Capital class, said potential career earnings highly influenced her major choices.
“It was part economic pressure that was secondhand from my parents and part me still trying to find a way for me to pursue my passion with that,” Konovalova said.
Her parents were unhappy with her political science choice, but they were pleased with mathematical economics, which is a “more quantitative field” with “higher ability” to earn money, she said.
The hearing Webber attended was the first of five where the committee can hear testimony that will shape the new iteration of the Higher Education Act.
Webber testified the cost of college, with consideration of financial aid packages, has spiked by 75 percent at four-year public institutions since 1990. But average support per student from state and local sources has decreased by about 25 percent in the last three decades.
For Sean Starosta, a sophomore economics major and Konovalova’s classmate, the cost of college was the primary factor he considered as he chose his college and program. But potential earnings also had some influence, he said.
“I chose it partially because I knew there were economics majors, and they make money, and that was important for my parents,” Starosta added. “People who don’t understand the returns of their majors are at risk of making decisions that might hurt themselves.”
The problem, Webber said, is the unavailability of data on different income levels post-graduation per major. That information would help students make their career decisions, Konovalova said.
Webber wants the U.S. Department of Education to release data in the College Scorecard, an online tool that helps students determine the costs of attending a school, about average earnings per major, rather than just the overall average post-graduation income university-wide. This data could help students better select a major that could help finance their tuition costs down the road, Webber said.
“We are going to get those data, but it can’t happen soon enough,” he added. “Students are making decisions right now, and they need better data.”