Episode 111: The College Major Dilemma

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We believe that today’s topic is an issue in higher education not only because the ins and outs of it are talked about often by professors and college administrators, but also because it is something that you as parents will undoubtedly be talking about to your kids once they get to college–if you haven’t started already. It is an issue that comes up in college applications?far too often, from my own point of view. It is the issue of what kids should major in when they go to college.

“Why is that even an issue for parents?” asked no parent ever. Here’s why. Let me read a letter written recently by a father to Philip Galanes, the “Social Q’s” columnist who gives “lighthearted advice about awkward social situations” in the words of The New York Times:

 

My wife and I are spending a fortune to send our son to an Ivy League college. Over the holidays, he came home and told us that he loves his agricultural science class and wants to volunteer at a sustainable farm over the summer. Excuse me, but I am not paying $60,000 a year (after taxes) for him to become a farmer. My wife tells me to relax; his interests will probably change. He is only a freshman. But what if they don’t? How should I handle this?

I love Burt Bacharach and Hal David. (What right-thinking child of the ’70s doesn’t?) But I have a bone to pick with some lyrics in “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” namely: “Lord, we don’t need another meadow. There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow.” Not true! If your son wants to be part of the revolution in sustainable farming and end world hunger, more power to him. (Or your wife may be right: He could trade in his overalls by Labor Day. He’s just starting out. What better time to explore?)

Still, you have a point. He who pays the piper calls the tune, as the proverb goes. But did you tell your son, before school began, that it was Goldman Sachs or bust? Probably not. (I also suspect that your parameters for acceptable study are broader than that.) You and your wife should discuss the education you are willing to underwrite and share the news with your son. He may accept your decision. . . . But here’s hoping he won’t. There are surely less controlling ways to teach him the consequences of his professional choices. (quoted from the article)

And there you have it. Parents are often concerned about the marketability in the job market and the earning potential of whatever their kids are studying. Of course, kids are concerned about this, too, but perhaps not quite so much. So, let’s talk about it.

1. Some Thoughts from Cornell University

Let me start with some thoughts from my own alma mater, Cornell University, which won’t surprise anyone in our listening audience. I do so because I have an inkling that the young man whose father wrote the letter might very well be studying at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. I think that for obvious reasons.

In my Cornell Alumni Magazine (January/February, 2017), the then-interim president and past president of the University, Hunter Rawlings, was quoted as telling undergraduates in an economics lecture to “major in what you love” and that “[t]he major you choose isn’t as important as parents think” (page 12). That’s kind of a double whammy for some parents, President Rawlings. I am wondering how the father who wrote the letter would feel about those remarks. While I was truly pleased by the President’s remarks, I doubt that father shared my point of view.

What was driving President Rawlings? Perhaps it was a story by Susan Kelley that I read back in September, 2016, as reported in the Cornell Chronicle. The story informs our discussion in this episode:

Interim President Hunter Rawlings is prompting the Cornell faculty to review undergraduate curriculum this year with an emphasis on the value of a liberal education.

“Cornell has rarely, if ever, talked about undergraduate education across the campus. We talk about it within the colleges, but we almost never consider the education all Cornell undergraduates receive from a unified perspective,” Rawlings said before discussing the initiative at the Sept. 14 faculty Senate meeting. “I would like to stimulate a conversation this year across the colleges.”

Rawlings defines “liberal education” as one faithful to its original meaning in Latin: “education for free citizens” who are capable of participating in civic affairs and government. Liberal education, he noted, “is distinguished from purely vocational education and emphasizes critical thinking, moral reasoning, close reading, clear speaking and writing, and the capacity to conduct independent and collaborative research.”

“The faculty owns the curriculum. It is their business,” he emphasized. But the time is right for a comprehensive review, he said. . . .

As president of the Association of American Universities for the past five years, he has seen a nationwide loss of faith in liberal education. That loss is tied to a strong emphasis on vocational education–a degree as a ticket to get a job. “Research universities have not done much to define and defend liberal education,” Rawlings said.

In Rawlings’ view, the College of Arts and Sciences is central to the discussion: it has Cornell’s core departments such that the other colleges rely on it for many of their students’ requirements and electives. (quoted from the article)

What does it take to educate free citizens? Is it arts and humanities or history or the social sciences or mathematics or the natural sciences? Isn’t it all of those things that colleges often refer to as general education or the core curriculum or distribution requirements? Is President Rawlings concerned that some students in the pursuit of a career-related degree in college in mechanical engineering or accounting or agricultural science, for example, will overlook those other fields that make up a liberal education–an education for future citizens? That is precisely what he doesn’t want to happen at Cornell. (And, by the way, father who wrote that letter, a degree in agricultural science will probably get your son into a career a lot quicker than a lot of other degrees I could name, so you might want to calm down.)

Some listeners will recall our long explanation of what a core curriculum is back in Episode 87, where we discussed the value of a core curriculum and whether the presence of a strong core curriculum with many requirements and/or with strict requirements should be a deciding factor in what colleges a kid might want to apply to. In fact, the details of such a core curriculum gets its own question in our College Profile Worksheet, which can be found in our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Seniors (out next month).

2. Some Thoughts from Pomona College

But President Rawlings and I are not the only ones who are concerned about “a nationwide loss of faith in liberal education.” I stumbled across an excellent talk given to Pomona College students last June by the U.S. Senator from Hawai’i Brian Schatz, a 1994 graduate of Pomona College. Feel free to go all the way back to our virtual nationwide college tour and listen to Episode 40, where we discuss Pomona College. Pomona is the oldest and founding college in the highly respected California consortium of five colleges, known as The Claremont Colleges. Pomona offers its 1,600 academically bright students a liberal arts curriculum, with 47 majors and a focus on the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.

Here are some of the Senator’s remarks, quoted from a YouTube video of his talk (to learn more about Pomona College, you should watch the whole video):

Liberal arts education is the best preparation for whatever you want to do next. And I believe that strongly, personally, because here I am in the U.S. Senate with a degree in philosophy from Pomona College. I didn’t get the law degree, and I didn’t get the economics degree. I got the degree in philosophy. And I remember my academic advisor saying . . . “[S]tudy what you want to study and it will all work out.” A liberal arts education provides that foundation. I think you want well-rounded thinkers in all sectors of society–in the public sector, in the private sector, in the not-for-profit sector. Whatever you want to do, I think it’s important to get that liberal arts education. As I meet students, I just encourage them to find that motivation internally and stick with it. . . . (quoted from the YouTube video)

And, parents, as we often say here at USACollegeChat, it is hard for students to find that motivation unless they have a liberal education or, at least, unless they have the benefit of taking a variety of college courses through core requirements in fields that they did not have access to before they got to college, including the Senator’s choice of the field of philosophy.

3. Some Thoughts from the Future Job Market

Well, I know this is a hard sell, so let me reflect with you on some interesting information I picked up at the Early College conference I attended and spoke at last week. A great conference in sunny Orlando sponsored by KnowledgeWorks, it offered a keynote address by the same professor who keynoted last year, Dr. James Johnson, Jr. (Director, Urban Investments Strategy Center, Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, University of North Carolina). Dr. Johnson, who has been a professor for 37 years, spoke brilliantly last year about changing demographics in the U.S.

This year, he turned his attention to “Jobs on the Move” and, again, spoke brilliantly. While it would be impossible to repeat his presentation here, let me give you just a few interesting facts he presented to support his view that the world of work is changing dramatically, that we are now living in a state of “certain uncertainty,” and that education is necessary, but insufficient:

  • In the 1980s, blue-collar jobs shifted off shore, resulting in a loss of 7.2 million jobs between 1979 and 2015 (a drop of 37 percent).
  • In the 1990s, white-collar jobs shifted off shore–for example, in the IT sector. By 2000, business processing was moving off shore, like operations, administration, sales, and customer services. By the way, workers in call centers in India are graduates of India’s equivalent of our M.I.T.
  • Now, knowledge processing is being outsourced, like R & D activities. Perhaps 13 percent of white-collar jobs are vulnerable–in business, computer, legal, and medical fields. For example, medical scans are already being read halfway around the world in 15 minutes for $80 compared to our $800 and three weeks before you get the results. In the new world of medical tourism, an operation can be had in India for 10 percent of the cost here. Good talent is simply cheaper off shore.
  • In the new world of robotics outsourcing, problem-solving robots will put more white-collar jobs at risk. Accountants have a 94 percent chance of being replaced, and pilots have a 55 percent chance of being replaced. Self-driving vehicles will cost millions their jobs.
  • As we leave the Information Age, we are entering the Human Age. Many of us will become freelancers in a global online marketplace. Any work you want done, you will post on a site and get a quick reply from someone who can do it. Already $1 billion a year is earned by freelancers (with 9 million freelancers registered).

Dr. Johnson concluded by saying that we educators in the audience should quit trying to train people for a particular job; we are too busy preparing our nation’s kids to work for someone else, who will be outsourcing their jobs sooner or later. We should be giving our nation’s kids the tools to make and navigate their own paths and to let their own creativity thrive.

What are those tools? Dr. Johnson suggested these for a “competitive tool kit” (quoted from his keynote speech):

  • “Analytical reasoning”
  • “Entrepreneurial acumen” (that is, expertise)–We will come back to entrepreneurship in a minute.
  • “Contextual intelligence” (that is, staying on top of information and change in your own field)
  • “Soft skills and cultural elasticity” (that is, moving from situation to situation in different settings with different people, which call for different responses)
  • “Agility and flexibility” (in a lifelong-learning mindset)

Dr. Johnson noted that the University of North Carolina, where he teaches, offers a minor in entrepreneurship in the College of Arts and Sciences. Entrepreneurship is not just for business majors! Here is some information about the minor in entrepreneurship, quoted from the College’s website:

This interdisciplinary minor in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences encourages students to think and act entrepreneurially. Students will gain knowledge and skills to start successful ventures of all kinds: artistic, commercial, media, social, scientific, sports, [design, computer science,] and public health. (quoted from the website)

Here is an example of one of those tracks, quoted from the College’s website:

. . . The [Artistic] track examines the concepts and tools needed to pursue artistic ventures, including the formation of business plans for student created ventures, and includes the legal aspects and challenges of Intellectual Property, i.e. copyright, trademarks, logos and patents. The instructors cover the music industry with emphasis on music publishing rights, the recording business, and booking and promotion for the live performance industry.  It also includes discussions of the television, motion picture and theatre businesses.  Guests who feature prominently in these industries are brought in to share their careers and interact with students.  Such guests can include musicians, singers, theatrical producers, film and television actors, talent agents, dancers, record industry executives, et al. The course takes students through the process of creating formal business plans for proposed artistic ventures, plans that are built and revised throughout the semester. (quoted from the website)

After the presentation, I chatted with Dr. Johnson. I told him that one of my musician sons had gotten a master’s degree in Creative Entrepreneurship from the University of East Anglia in the U.K. At the time, I thought that was the dumbest thing I had ever heard, though I knew deep down that it was a made-to-order master’s degree for him. I told Dr. Johnson that I was feeling much better about his degree now, thanks to Dr. Johnson’s explanation of the rise of entrepreneurship and the Human Age.

I went on to ask Dr. Johnson what he thought about the role of liberal arts in a college education, given his concern that our schools and colleges should not be preparing students for a specific job. He said that he believed that the liberal arts definitely had a place in a college education. I am imagining that means at least in those early core requirements when students are learning to analyze and to think across a variety of disciplines and to be agile and flexible in their learning. He said that, after all, you can’t always put engineers in front of people. By the way, you can and should find Dr. Johnson on YouTube so you can hear from him yourself.

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