The Hullabaloo Over College Majors

Now that it’s the season for college graduation, once more the articles and commentaries are popping up everywhere – and most of them either tout certain undergraduate majors as “good” because employment in that field is up or bad because immediate job prospects aren’t as good.  What’s even worse is that politicians are getting into the act, some of them going so far as to suggest that students shouldn’t major in fields that don’t pay as well or where employment prospects are aren’t so good, with hints that government and universities shouldn’t offer aid to students interested in such fields.

There are enormous problems with the whole idea of over-emphasizing undergraduate collegiate majors, the first of which is that many students entering college don’t have the faintest idea what their true talents are or whether their interests match their abilities. This problem has worsened in the past several generations as the general academic rigor of high schools has declined and as more students enter colleges and universities without ever having been truly tested to the limits of their abilities.

The second problem is that the emphasis on a “profitable” major is also a growing emphasis on turning college into what amounts to a white-collar vocational school, rather than on an institution devoted to teaching students how to think and to learn on a life-long basis. Colleges themselves are buying into this by pushing departments into “accountability” and insisting that departments determine how many graduates are successful and employed in that field years after graduating.  But does that really measure success?

In addition, the emphasis on selecting a major based on future projected employability neglects two incredibly important factors.  The first is the student’s aptitudes.  A student who is weak in mathematics is highly unlikely to be particularly successful in fields that require that ability, no matter how many jobs exist.  Second, most students take four years or more to finish college.  Projecting what occupations will be hiring the most in four years is chancy.

As for the subjects students choose for their major, the “employability” measurements used are generally employment in the first year after graduation, and the differences in various fields aren’t that significant.  For example, in a recent Georgetown University study, there was only about a 10% difference in employment between the “worst” and “best” undergraduate majors. Such measurements strongly suggest that a student who likes a field and works hard to excel is more likely to land a job, even in a field where employment is not as robust, than a student who tries to game the employment field and who picks a major based on projected employment and earnings rather than on picking a field suited to his or her abilities. In short, it’s far better for students to be at the top of a field they like than at the bottom of one that they don’t.

More than a few studies have shown and projected that today’s educated workers will have changed fields of work three to four times between entering the workforce and retiring – and that today’s students will face even more need to change their field of work.  Such changes place a premium on the ability to think and to learn throughout life, not on a single set of skills tailored to one field or profession.  Yes, there are some fields where dedicated and directed learning is required from the beginning of college, but those fields are a minority and call for initial dedication.  They seldom attract students who are unsure of what they want to do in life or students with wide interests.

In the end, all the political and media concern about “appropriate” majors, despite protests to the contrary, ignores much of what is best about college and for the students by emphasizing short-term economic goals that cannot possibly benefit the majority of students.


10 thoughts on “The Hullabaloo Over College Majors”

  1. Daze says:

    People who were fellow partners with me in a global telecoms and media consulting practice had degrees in economics, maths, marine entomology, geography, physics … So, I’d tend to say that proves out that knowing how to investigate and think about what you find is more important than what you study.

  2. Ked says:

    Joseph Campbell said to “Follow Your Bliss.” I think it is good advice but the problem for me, and many others I suspect, is that only some of us are able to recognize our bliss in our college years. His advice reminds me of Lily Tomlin’s quip on growing up, “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.” I have seen many talented people who just vaguely wandered into their work lives, by little more than a chance whim or the advice of parents or friends… I think I fit into this category. I am a bit envious of people who knew when they were three that they wanted to an ophthalmologist or whatever. The advantage I see to not knowing what I should be or do is that I have done so many different careers in my life. Also, men I think have more pressure in some ways to compete for money. It is very hard to escape the societal notion that a man who does not make a lot of money is not much of a man. I agree with you, Mr. Modesitt, that “In short, it’s far better for students to be at the top of a field they like than at the bottom of one that they don’t like.”

  3. Chad says:

    Why is government aid needed at all? Would it not be better to remove the bloat via forced contraction of the entire risky bubble which is today’s form of higher education?

  4. Wine Guy says:

    I suspect most of us have heard “Don’t let your classes get in the way of your education.”

    I earned (the hard way) a BS in Biochemistry. I was lucky enough to go to a school where I could take as many classes as I could fit into my schedule. My grades suffered because of it, but I ended up getting more out of my ‘non-major’ classes than I did for my ‘major’ classes. ECON1-3 might not have been required, but I can puzzle my way through both a company financial statement AND understand why the gov’t not having a budget is bad. The single most useful classes I had were Speech Communications classes that helped me with public speaking – something I have to do at least 2x/wk and was not required to take. So called ‘hard science’ classes SHOULD be required, in addition to ‘soft science’ – and anyone who makes fun of a strong liberal arts education (and by strong, I mean rigorous academically) and the potential that those graduates offer is missing the entire point of education.

    The other point I would like to make is that if anyone truly wishes to excel in their profession, their education cannot end in college. I am required to get 50 continuing education units a year in order to remain board-certified. If I have the time, I usually triple that.

  5. Bain says:

    I am currectly attending nursing school at a junior college also taking classes in the hard science and liberal arts. Tranfering to a university to received my BS in Nursing. When I started my journey, I was not a regular student. I work fulltime and went to college fulltime to prepare for nursing school. My question to myself do I want to be a nurse, I attain my CNA and I found out that I love nursing. I have see many students declared they only going into nursing for a job and money. I was so glad the instructors would tell these students if you want money and do not care about people this is not the field for you. Many of my instructors have encouraged me to push the limits in my knowledge, I have taken Mandarian Chinese, Finance,Yoga and Classical Liter. Everyone of these classes has help me with patients.

  6. Joe says:

    The hullabaloo is due to the cost and one-pointedness of College. Few people devote any time to studying after college. Yet as the pace of change accelerates, continuing learning becomes necessary just to keep up. Because it is difficult to integrate study into busy lives, we will probably need to restructure the work week to allow for more “continuing education”. Without time for learning and reflection, democracy is actually meaningless: people only vote for the best tested catch-phrases, and the best looking candidates (government by the people, but not government for the people).

  7. Mayhem says:

    To be fair, another factor is the tick the box style of recruitment now popular. If your qualification doesn’t match exactly what they have on their form, you get dumped in favour of the next person who does match. Skill is irrelevant at this point in the process.

    I have two good friends in my field of IT support. One has a bachelors degree in IT & telecommunications, plus one relevant field cert. The other has a masters degree in botany, and twenty years experience in the IT trade. The first is earning good money at a permanent job for doing basic work. The second is earning good money as a contractor for a service providor. He was unable to get a permanent job anywhere, as his qualifications were deemed inappropriate by HR. While he could gain more certifications, he doesn’t feel the need to join the treadmill, and his providor knows he is good, and sends work his way as appropriate.

  8. Tim says:

    Responding to Mayhem’s point on IT support. I have worked in both the US and UK in IT. In the UK, team members generally had a wider background in terms of degree. For example, the best test manager I ever had held a degree from Oxford in Greats (ie Latin and Greek). In the US when you needed a database specialist, you hired one. When the job was done, you fired him/her and that was expected. The concept of a generalist in an area was not understood.

    I would have certainly given your botanist an interview as together with the relevant experience, as this brings a far wider view onto IT problems, in my view.

    I have had to encourage some so-called IT specialists to move elsewhere as they were obviously too focused and unable to “think out of the box”. I found the same with people with PhDs in IT as they seemed content to have spent 3 years on one small topic which is not what the usual IT mindset demands unless you go to work for a specialist field on, say, modelling aspects of Cosmology.

    The HR departments really need to understand the needs of IT. Specialist qualifications in IT are actually a niche market, and should not be considered the norm to solve IT problems, which requires a broader background.

  9. Helen Conner says:

    I have to agree with all your points regarding education, especially college or undergraduate degrees. I think many people place too much emphasis on the diploma rather on the skills they already have. In addition, many students, as you pointed out, have barely know what their skills are really like. Let’s not forget the pressure that the parents and the family give to the poor student so that he could get a proper job and an income. I am not saying that college is bad or education is, but it is not a solution for all the trouble. Education is meant to enrich lives and not make the student miserable.

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