Walt Gardner writes for the Martin Center about the future viability of American regional colleges.

The wage premium attached to a bachelor’s degree largely explains why high school graduates who would have previously looked for a job now apply to college. But they need to know up-front that what they major in has far more importance in landing a well-paying job than where they spend the next four years.

For regional and less-known colleges, stopping enrollment declines depends on demonstrating their value to potential students.

Instead of relying on boilerplate such as small classes, accessible professors, and the like, they need to focus on the ultimate pay-off for today’s younger generation and their hard-strapped parents: well-paying jobs immediately after graduation.

It’s not that a bachelor’s degree should be measured solely by its mercantile value, but that college today is the largest monetary investment most families make. As a result, it has to be evaluated by its pecuniary return. If less-prestigious schools can show that their graduates who have majored in certain fields earn more than graduates with other majors from marquee-name institutions, they have a chance to prosper.

Less-recognizable colleges have experienced precipitous declines in applications this past year. …

… Unlike their prestigious counterparts, lesser-known colleges have to publicize their uniqueness.

Let’s start with the obvious. Which is more likely to lead to a job that provides immediate economic independence: a gender studies major from Harvard or a computer science major from the University of Mississippi? The operative word is “immediate” because graduates have bills to pay and can’t wait decades for a significant earnings boost.

New data underscore the wide variation in wages across college majors. In many cases, the gap is as large as the college wage premium itself. …

… If all this sounds as if college is little more than a business, it is because of its cost.