Major malfunctions

Emory English professor Mark Bauerlein comments on a new report about the relative earning power of various undergraduate majors:

The report entitled “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors” is an important study that adds to the growing data base on the outcome of a college education. It’s a product of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, and is authored by Anthony Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, and Michelle Melton.

The study collects data from the 2009 American Community Survey, administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, which asked people the usual questions about income etc., but also asked those who earned a bachelor’s degree what they majored in. The result is a breakdown of majors by income. (Respondents had to work full time and be 25 to 64 years of age.)

Nothing surprising showed up. Engineers, computer science, mathematics, and business topped the field, while humanities, arts, education, and psychology/social work came out at the bottom. This survey includes actual salary figures for each field, along with a breakdown of each field into specific majors.
Within the humanities, for instance, U.S. history came out on top at $57K, theology at the bottom at $38K. English was at $48K.

This information increases the pressure on teachers in low-ranking fields when first- and second-year students enter their offices to ask for guidance on their careers. Unless they wish to ignore the practical side of life entirely and highlight the become-a-learned-individual rationale, teachers have an obligation to spell out the relative standing of their fields on the income ladder.

But then, the discouragement runs against the teachers’ own interests. Departments in fields that don’t bring in outside money need undergraduate enrollments to justify themselves. Without full classrooms, they lose their standing. This was the primary justification SUNY-Albany gave for dispensing with five majors last year.

This is a growing conflict: student interests vs. department interests. I have heard for two deacades now that more and more professors in humanities fields advise students against going to graduate school, mainly because the job market is so bad for PhDs. More and more, however, in certain fields, the discouragement seems to slide down the ladder from graduate school to college. With the price of college going up and the unemployment rate for recent graduates remaining high, the choice of major falls ever more under the shadow of the market. Increasingly, the mind of the 19-year-old matters less than the paycheck.

We’re quite accustomed, at this point, to the lamentations, usually issued by academic humanists, about how colleges and universities are devaluing the humanities–and to the exhortations, also usually issued by academic humanists, to defend the study of the humanities. These reflexive maneuvers are usually part of a broader defense of liberal arts education over the vocational training that is increasingly dominating the undergraduate experience, and the defenses tend to hinge on the difficult-to-quantify by very real values of being able to read with sensitivity and comprehension, write well, and think critically. It sounds good as far as it goes.

But when you do the math, it doesn’t.

The answer seems clear to me, a win-win all around. When I was teaching at Penn, some of the best students I encountered were those who were double majoring in English and Something Substantive with Clear Career Potential. There were some wonderful students who were pre-med, balancing biology majors and English majors, and truly using the English classes to expand their minds, improve their writing, and enhance their approach to science and medicine. I saw this with Wharton students, too. Both the pre-med and the business double majors had clarity about what they were doing and why (many single-major humanities majors don’t). This gave them a strong sense of purpose–and also meant, generally, that they were better organized and harder working than their less focussed compeers. (I also never felt guilty about teaching them, whereas I often felt guilty with straight-up English majors, many of whom either had no direction or thought, wrongheadedly but understandably, that they’d like to do a job like mine when they grew up).

This is an argument not for doing away with the academic humanities–but for transparency about what the prospects of humanities majors are, and for reasonable, creative responses to the curricular dilemma posed by the truth. It’s an argument for stronger, more focussed core curricula where all students are introduced to humanistic study in a coherent way early on in their college careers, and it’s also an argument for encouraging double-majoring of the sort described above–where one major is clearly geared toward charting out a career path with appropriate earning potential, and the other is geared toward “following one’s bliss,” intellectually speaking.

That would be a lot of work, you say. True. But as study after study has shown, college students aren’t working much these days. They work far less than they used to. Two majors can help correct that. Two majors also allows them to do the two things they should be using college to do: acquiring a liberal arts education and the reading and writing skills that come with it, and acquiring the career preparation they need to make a living (and to pay off their college loans). The debate usually takes place as an either-or. But it doesn’t have to. It can be both-and. Value-added, as they say in business.

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  1. david foster says:

    The dual-major approach was also recommended by Michael Hammer, the renowned management consultant. I summarized some of his thinking here.

    Note that Dr Hammer was not a fan of the undergraduate business major.

  2. My nephew triple majored in classical studies, physics and math, went on to MIT in physics for his PhD. The other nephew, who is in medical school, had sculpture as his “real” major.

    I think that this sort of thing is more than possible, though Journalism and “something else” works very, very well for pre-law.

  3. [...] but most of them realize that the grunt work is part of the bargain. Erin O’Connor had a good post the other day about, in part, aimless humanities majors that addressed this issue more [...]

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