A Major Problem

As policymakers and college administrators focus on STEM education, workforce preparation, and the cost of college, a student’s choice of major has never been under more scrutiny. Is an English degree really a one-way ticket to a career at Starbucks?

A Major Problem

It’s a refrain heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day across the Forty Acres and at colleges around the world: What’s your major?

A simple question, certainly, but a loaded one. For years, English majors have endured tired comments on their future work as baristas. Government majors have struggled to explain to relatives that, no, they’re not studying to be politicians. Politicians themselves have gotten in on that act, including President Obama, who made art history majors a punchline while addressing the crowd at a GE factory in Wisconsin last month.

But it’s not just jokes. The value of a degree, or its return on investment, has become a hot topic as the United States struggles to educate its future workforce, and as the importance of job training and STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) has brought traditional liberal arts educations into question. Is it worth the debt, parents may wonder, to let my student read Shakespeare?

The University of Texas System has even made the value of a UT degree a numbers game. A new online app launched in January lets prospective students and their parents analyze majors at different UT System institutions, comparing average earnings and student debt.

When the NPR program “Planet Money” asked what’s in a major last year, they talked to UT alumna Erin Ford, BS ’11, a graduate of UT’s highly-ranked petroleum engineering program. At the tender age of 24, Ford was reportedly making $110,000—more than double the median household income in the U.S. in June 2013. Petroleum engineering, of course, is the highest-earning major on average, but it does raise the question: is that art history degree worth it?

Sorry, there’s no real answer to that. It involves a number of case-specific judgments and nuances—the difference between job training and education, for example, or an individual’s goals, aspirations, and even capabilities. But we do have some facts.

According to a 2013 study conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Hart Research Associates for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), employers do like liberal arts grads, or rather they don’t dislike them. Ninety-three percent of employers surveyed said skills like critical thinking and communication, the development of which is the stated goal of many liberal-arts programs, are more important than a student’s choice of undergraduate major.

AAC&U and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems are back this year with another report showing that, over the course of their careers, liberal-arts majors close the earnings gap with workers who majored in professional or preprofessional fields, and that social-science and humanities majors are crucial to America’s social-services jobs. And while a gap in unemployment persists between liberal-arts majors and others, it decreases with time.

But money, says Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic, is the wrong metric entirely. Using the same AAC&U study, culled from the 2010 U.S. Census, Weissmann argues that judging a major’s value by its median earnings is “very, very wrongheaded.” Graduating with a degree in, say, ancient Icelandic literature, is better than not graduating, he notes, and students who pick a major they love makes them more likely to finish college with any kind of degree. It’s a simple argument but an important one that seems supported by evidence that businesses prioritize smart, creative workers over any particular major.

Karen Weise in Businessweek also thinks the minutiae of salary averages doesn’t solve college’s biggest problems like graduation rates and debt, which keep thousands from earning any kind of credential.

“Broad averages won’t help these questions,” she writes. “In fact, they can be a distraction.”

Photo courtesy Jukka Zitting via Flickr Creative Commons.


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