Originally Posted by ziggy29
So are we saying that philosophy degrees should be almost entirely taxpayer-subsidized while degrees in science, engineering, business and pre-professional studies should have no subsidy at all (and perhaps charged more than cost in order to subsidize history majors)?
[Edit to add: If some majors are charged more because of the need to pay higher salaries to compete with private industry in that field, that's one thing and I can see that. But I don't think taxpayer subsidies should vary.]
I was describing the public policy claim. First of all "return on a degree" is not the same as salary. and High private return in this context is relative, not absolute. Education is a mix of what economists call public and private goods. It has public and private returns. It is understood than when you talk of salary related to education you are describing the private return and ignoring the public return. As an example the cost of educating a cadet at West point is enormous. The return in that case is almost all public, i.e. we need West point graduates for the society. So we pay the full cost and then some. When we talk of fairness in students paying tuition we are describing the "private return". If the private return is high and the public return is low it is easy to justify the student paying full cost tuition. The absolute cost of tuition is related to the cost of the education.
Engineers have high salaries and the education is expensive. For more than a hundred years we have believed that the public return is high relative to the private return. That is why we subsidize the education of engineers, Nurses, Teachers and many other professions, despite the costs.
In some professions like law, the private returns are very high but the public also needs some of the professionals. In such cases it is rational to have the students pay the money and then repay their educational costs as they do public service.
Many researchers believe that the return on classic "liberal arts" like philosophy and history is split about half and half between public and private. The absolute return is not high, but the education is fairly cheap.
Music and other arts are another story. The education is expensive and the total return is not high by the measure we use. But those measures may be flawed. Its hard to quantify the value of culture, so we guess.