Friday, December 2, 2011

College Majors that Don't Pay

From the humorous post here to the ominous bureaucratic management of China's proposal here, it comes as no surprise that I, a philosopher, would wonder if both the United States and China operate under a mistake. This is the mistake that universities are responsible for the training of employees--this belief is supported by the thought that professional majors like engineering, computer science and business earn more than their liberal art counterparts. However, that might not be true. Consider Edwin Koc, Director of the Strategic and foundation research at the National Association of College Employers says,

But the advantage possessed by career-oriented majors may be short-lived. Once in a career path, the more general skills of communication, organization and judgment become highly valued. As a result, liberal arts graduates frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation. A longitudinal study conducted several years ago by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that the wage differentials that existed between career-oriented majors and academically oriented majors were all but eliminated within 10 years after graduation.

Now, if this is true, and my experience confirms that it seems to be so, then what universities should be doing is holding true to standards in which the best can succeed, and if others are willing to put in the hard work, then they too should be held to a standard of excellence steeped in the liberal arts tradition. This has always been my problem. Philosophy majors tend to be exceptionally bright. They are studying the physics of the humanities and they have acquired a level and depth to their critical thinking that outstrips the typical business student. Now, I don't pretend to be not biased, but I have also taught in universities in which this bears out time and time again. Business students account for 1 in 6 majors in the United States. Philosophy majors, I read somewhere, account for about 1% of all Bachelor degrees given out every year.

The NCES study doesn't surprise me given that liberal arts majors are more likely to attend postgraduate education of some variety, and the pressing need for future critical thinking skills in life may far outweigh exactly how an accounting major learns to do her thing.

But let me return to my initial thought. Is it the job of universities to improve the quality of the overall person, or train future workers in a economy? Why is it the university's sole responsibility to supply an economy with workers ready-made and gift-wrapped upon graduation? Given how volatile our economic cycles can be, I do not think something as unpredictable should have a bearing on educational outcomes at all. Perhaps, it is the economy and the people working within it that need to be more adaptive to the inherent chaos within how an economy moves. Ideas come from innovative people, individuals with skills to adjust to life. It makes no sense to plan a life around something as volatile as the economy. This is not a call to hold back a second and try to assess how we can best serve ours students. This can only be done by a liberal arts education that fosters the capacities to learn and adapt--that is, namely, teaching those critical thinking and communication skills that come from assessing arguments in Plato, or reading theology, art history or any number of classical disciplines in which have no direct immediate gain; instead, the humanities proffer a lifetime gain over a long period of study by promoting reflection, critical thinking and the ability to clearly articulate and appreciate contexts that transcend the immediate and instrumental needs.

Maybe the private sector can help and anticipate its own needs by further training people as the needs become apparent. If companies want good workers with critical thinking and communication skills, then perhaps they should invest in human capital more, and I'll increasingly teach more philosophy majors to boot.

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