Mises Wire

Headline Math, Women’s Wages, and a Very Bad Deal in Higher Education

Headline math is a simple percentage expressed as a fact without context. Its design is to create an emotional response, support an opinion, or generate a click past the paywall. Once articulated, it exists in speech as a noun. W. Brian Arthur’s paper “Economics in Nouns and Verbs” explains the use of nouns to express a conclusion as fact, excluding further discussion. Student loan statistics for women are presented as facts, needing no further thought or understanding. However, these facts are instead mistaken assumptions presented without explicit context. Consider the compounding of these facts:

  • Women in 2021 hold 66 percent of all student loan debt.
  • Following graduation, women will earn 81 percent of what men can expect.
  • Following graduation, 91 percent of men, but 85 percent of women, are willing to have full-time jobs.
  • For comparable payment periods, women’s loans shrank by 28 percent while men’s debts decreased by 44 percent.
  • Women with bachelor’s degrees graduate with $2,700 more in debt than male peers.
  • Men pay down their debt at a rate of 11 percent compared to 8 percent for women.

After this barrage of headline math, we must conclude that there is an effort in universities and the labor market to oppress women by denying them adequate wages. There must not be any laws against discrimination in hiring. Colleges must be misogynistic, swamped in patriarchy. Maybe not.

Starting salaries are dollar indicators of the exchange value of the human capital and skills developed in the university. For this explanation, exchange value is defined as “a quantitative relationship which expresses the worth of one commodity in terms of another commodity,” with one commodity being “degree = human capital” and the other being “dollars = salary.” Market prices establish a dialogue of worth expectations for the buyer’s use value to the seller’s exchange value. A degree’s use value is denominated in the exchange value of a salary. As Carl Menger said, “The value of goods and services resides in the judgement of the individual chooser, not inherent in the goods themselves.”

While president of the American Economic Association, 2023 Nobel Prize winner Claudia Goldin wrote “Notes on Women and the Economics Undergraduate Major” in 2013, stating that there was a lack of female representation in economics. Her observation started with a sample of the top one hundred liberal arts colleges and measured the choices of majors. Men chose economics at 6.0 percent of the sample while women chose economics at a 2.4 percent rate.

She further unwinds the choice of majors, positing that women are 73 percent of psychology majors and 28 percent of economic majors. Goldin asks if psychology and related studies are the female social science. Current statistics, in Table 1, align with those in the 2013 article.

For educational and counseling psychology majors, 78 percent of degree holders are women, and 31 percent of economics majors are women. Underemployment is 47.6 percent for psychology majors and 35.3 percent for economics majors. Salary differences are stunning; early median wages for psychology graduates is $37,400, while it is $60,000 for economics graduates. Sociology suffers a similar compression when compared to mechanical engineering.

Goldin leaves many questions unanswered but dismisses the women’s math avoidance barrier hypothesis. In conclusion, she asks if economics should present as a consumption study that is people oriented to attract more female undergraduates. Goldin precipitates the wage disparity discussion between men and women as a function of their major. The table here supports her inquiry. The cost of these degrees is equal.

1: Graduates of majors in terms of gender, starting salary, and percentage of underemployment




Starting salary


Psychology grads

22 percent

78 percent


47.6 percent

Economics grads

69 percent

31 percent


35.3 percent






Sociology grads

13 percent

87 percent


51.3 percent

Mechanical engineering grads

89 percent

11 percent


15.8 percent






Source: Data from “College Majors with the Highest and Lowest Unemployment Rates,” Stacker, accessed January 4, 2024, https://stacker.com/business-economy/college-majors-highest-and-lowest-unemployment-rates.

If university bureaucrats dealt in a world of finite resources or scarcity, the information carried by the price of their product would be important. They might embrace efficiencies or change offerings. FAFSA eliminates scarcity, absolving the university of any efficiency or fiduciary responsibility for any loan funds. If that were not the case, then the request for student debt forgiveness would offer good-faith cost-cutting proposals. Educational bureaucrats care more about budget cuts than student job and salary success. F.A. Hayek wrote that “Bureaucratic structure makes new information a threat that needs to be suppressed or smothered in propaganda.”

The educational complex is neither a fiduciary nor evaluator of loans. It is free to focus on gathering more students-as-ATMs. Three-story water slides, float-tube rivers, petting zones for stress relief, and safe zones—extended adolescents have a summer camp experience on the FAFSA dollar. The educational complex expresses shock that education can have its value monetized and made a commodity. Their goal is catering to the student, not have responsibility to the state or taxpayer.

Higher education leaders assert a degree has value in the effort or cost to achieve it. This concept echoes Karl Marx’s congealed labor time. There should be no salary difference in the value of degrees if they all cost the same. A master’s is worth more than a bachelor’s as the labor and dollar inputs are greater. Ignoring the price information allows universities to validate degrees with a low use value to fill the seats. The economic, industry, and company analysis understands value as a summation of the labor that went into the degree. Creating a more-developed individual benefits all of society via social return on investment, a fuzzy ill-defined qualifying benefit implying a level of precision. According to Carl Menger, “Because the value of goods and services resides in the mind of acting individuals (it is subjective), and not the goods themselves, we have a subjectivist theory of value and an ordinal definition of utility.”

A recent survey identified the top twenty salary paying degrees and the top twenty degrees with the highest percentages of women degree holders. This survey writes these headline math statements:

  • Women are approaching 66 percent of university students, increasing their total student debt.
  • Other than nursing, majors that graduate a majority of women pay on average less than $60,000 a year.
  • Statistics indicate women graduates will never catch up to the income levels of men.
  • Oversupply of some skill sets will lead to more advanced degrees needed as well as increased debt.

Universities and federal agencies need to communicate the reality of student loans. Debtors have been unaware of what their futures may hold.

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