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What’s a College Major Worth?

Ever since I read about the Chinese Ministry of Education’s decision to phase out college majors that don’t give graduates marketable skills, I’ve been pondering the parallels between China’s higher ed headaches and those of the United States. Both countries have pushed hard to send more students to college, on the theory that building human capital will advance individuals’ prospects in the labor market while simultaneously promoting national economic growth. Yet both now see a distressing number of college graduates without jobs. That’s in part because the skills they possess often don’t seem to match those that employers — at least those that are hiring — want from new recruits. So is China doing the right thing? And should the United States follow suit?

China’s move certainly hasn’t been applauded at home. According to this account in the Wall Street Journal, the ministry’s distinctly instrumental view of what college students should study has led to a variety of worries. There’s the possibility of gamesmanship — colleges that want to promote diverse subjects may deliberately misreport their graduates’ employment rates. There’s the concern that the policy will lead students to move away from subjects such as biology, which while not in high demand in the near-term are crucial to China’s vision of increased scientific prowess.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s the worry that restrictions on the study of, say, Russian (China’s Shenyang Norman University cut enrollment in its program in half, the Journal reports) send the wrong message about the value of non-vocational education. This at a moment when China is ever more conscious of the need to develop a more creative workforce, one capable of the innovative thinking for which the United States and China’s other economic rivals are known. Indeed, the new dictate on which majors are to be eliminated, or severely trimmed, contrasts strikingly with China’s creation of a small but growing number of undergraduate liberal-arts programs, aimed at molding original thinkers.

Where does the United States fit in this discussion? There has for some time been a marked separation in this country between two visions of college education (a subject thoughtfully explored by Louis Menand in a widely discussed New Yorker article last June). The first, broadly speaking, expects that undergraduates will acquire an important knowledge base and analytical habits of mind by engaging with classical texts, studying natural sciences, and so forth. The second sees particular value in the pursuit of labor market credentials in, say, crop science or accounting.

One year ago, I wrote that these two approaches need not be irrevocably opposed. A view of universities that sees their core purpose as driving economic growth (including graduating students with skills readily in demand in the marketplace) can coexist with one designed to foster the life of the mind. For one thing, liberal-arts students may well develop analytical skills that, while not vocational in a narrow sense, hold them in good stead in the professional world. Moreover, both kinds of education often take place within the same university — there are lots of places where students can major in Latin or in physical therapy. There is also plenty of room within a pluralistic postsecondary system for a variety institutions, each dedicated to its own distinct mission, whether overtly practical or not.

All this said, with unemployment high among college grads (and student debt mounting), it’s no wonder that students and parents are anxious about future employment prospects. Although college graduates continue to earn far more on average than Americans with only high-school diplomas, there’s growing evidence to substantiate the assumption that choice of major has a significant impact on earnings. A report last year from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found very high earnings gaps between engineering, computer science, and business graduates, at the high end of the salary range, and those with degrees in fields such as social work and education. Petroleum engineers, for instance, reported average annual earnings of $120,000, while psychologists averaged $29,000.

Stats like these shouldn’t be read as evidence that China’s rigid, top-down approach is a particularly useful model for the United States. Career-oriented education isn’t right for everyone, whether or not it leads to lucrative employment. Even a major that aims to impart practical skills may not make graduates rich (see social work and education, above). There’s a good case for studying cultural anthropology, just as there is for majoring in computer science. What’s crucial is that students pick their fields of study with eyes wide open. That includes knowing the facts about the near-, mid-, and long-term earnings disparities between different kinds of degrees – facts that have often been unavailable in the past. I don’t see why anyone should have a major problem with that.

 

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