Higher ed bubble watch — whither all the “soft” majors?

Looking at Alex Tabarrok’s data, it seems that (a) college enrollment is up by about 50% over the past 25 years, and (b) most of the increase has come in “soft” fields like the humanities, “area studies”, fine arts, and communications rather than “hard” fields like STEM.  So, er, why?

If the increase in enrollment comes from the notion that a four-year college degree will help people get better (and better-paying) jobs — and that’s the dominant narrative in the past few internet arguments I’ve had on the subject — then one has to wonder why people are staying away from professional degrees in droves.  As Catherine Rampell reports (NYT, mind the dumbworms), graduates with communications, humanities, and area-studies degrees not only have the lowest median rates of participation in degree-requiring jobs, but they earn less (at the median) in any job than, say, education majors — let alone engineers.  So why, if students are going to college to get better jobs, do they gravitate towards the majors with the worst job prospects?

Spoiler warning: I don’t know.  But I have some ideas.

To begin with, a job-seeker choosing to major in English rather than Engineering seems irrational.  Hanson’s Razor tells us that irrational behaviour is often rational signaling behaviour.  Some of these liberal-arts students might be signaling authenticity: “That biochemistry major in the lab coat?  He’s a sellout, just trying to get a degree that’ll get him a job once he graduates, even if he hates every minute of it.  Me?  I’m pursuing my true interests.  My major in Late Renaissance Trephination speaks to the conflict in my soul.”  Others, following Steve Jobs’s edict to “never settle”, might be signaling incredible confidence in their innate talent: “Sure, anyone can go get a MechE degree and expect to do well, but I’m not just anyone; I’m gonna hit it big despite the fact that my degree in Ancient Etruscan Feminist Poetry isn’t as marketable as a B.Eng.”

Arnold Kling notes that “the issue of college graduates seeking, and perhaps not finding, politically correct employment is an interesting one. Recall the view from Yale.”  Maybe it’s not so much the major that’s doing the signaling, but the intended end result.  Let’s recall the view from Yale:

I want to watch Shloe’s movies and I want to see Mark’s musicals and I want to volunteer with Joe’s non-profit and eat at Annie’s restaurant and send my kids to schools Jeff’s reformed and I’m JUST SCARED about this industry that’s taking all my friends and telling them this is the best way for them to be spending their time.

Perhaps some of these job-seeking “soft-studies” majors are playing a long game, signaling not just with their majors but with their careers.  Here’s another example from Tyler Cowen.

But it stretches credibility to suggest that all of these newly-minted Arts majors, or even most of them, are dewy-eyed hippies with dreams of changing the world.  (For the record, the one dewy-eyed hippie I know who dreamed of changing the world did a Business degree and turned it into a management position at a nonprofit.  Far as I know, she’s actually changing the world.)  Perhaps a lot of them really are responding to incentives — just not the ones we’d first expect.

Jonathan Adler points out that grades in the humanities are, on average, significantly higher than grades in the sciences, and concludes that “[i]f taking math, science and engineering courses requires students to sacrifice their GPAs and class standing, it should be no surprise that many choose other courses of study.”  Science nerds like me might scoff, but we should remember that grades are powerful signals to students — in many ways they replace the price system within an undergraduate education.

It’s also possible that people stay away from science degrees because science is just hardThoreau points out that, as far as the job market’s concerned, “If you are at an elite school, well, first of all, in some sense it doesn’t matter what you major in.  If you have a degree from a selective school with a good alumni network, between intelligence signalling and networking connections you’ll be OK no matter what you major in.”  (Note that Rampell’s statistics don’t account for this sort of thing — a humanities degree from a middle-of-the-road state school might be even worse than her charts make it look!)  In the same article, he notes that schools are under a lot of pressure to keep graduation rates high, and that some measures to do that simply “encourage the freshmen who are flailing in STEM courses to switch majors.”

Then again, maybe we shouldn’t discount irrationality entirely:

But the main reason for a classical education is precisely its uselessness. True learning is practically useless; and it should be. It is not about deploying knowledge to master the world, it is about the pursuit of truth for the sake of nothing else. It is about the highest things. How is a life worth living if it ignores them?

That’s a splendid luxury for the idle rich, Sparky, but it makes it hard to pay off those student loans.

Update: Jason Kuznicki thinks I’m overthinking it:

For a certain social class, the traditional four-year B.A. is a consumption good. It’s not about building human capital orabout signaling that you already have human capital. It’s about enjoying yourself.

College is a socially expected consumption good, but still, what we’re seeing now is the real reason exposed when all the secondary reasons (Earn a paycheck! Join the world of 9-5 office work!) have evaporated. Most people go to college for personal fulfillment — to achieve all kinds of ends way high up on Maslow’s hierarchy. The rest is secondary.

His explanation has the advantages of being simple and plausible.  But dammit, this is my blog, and I’ll overthink it if I damn well please!


10 Responses to “Higher ed bubble watch — whither all the “soft” majors?”

  1. 1 madrocketscientist
    November 7, 2011 at 18:06

    Well, what do you expect when you tell kids, the value is in the degree itself, not the curriculum. It doesn’t matter what classes you take, just that you took classes, pursued a goal, and showed the discipline to complete it.

    Problem is, employers aren’t interested in training college graduates in the basics of how to do their jobs. The specifics of how things work at employer X, sure, but the rest, not so much. My employer is willing to pay me to learn the software I support, but if they had to also teach me basic fluid mechanics theory, or how CFD works, they never would have hired me.

    Most of the degrees you discuss above only prepare a student for two things:
    A life in academia, or
    A law or medical degree (or other professional degree).

    I will say this, though, I have a friend who has a Master’s in literature from a small, private, mid-west liberal arts school, who is doing very well. Of course, the whole time he was in in grad school, he was teaching himself Linux networking, and he spent 10+ years after school was done building up his skills and reputation in the Linux world. He now enjoys the fruits of that labor, but if he hadn’t taught himself Linux, and managed to get a job in that field, his job prospects would have been grim indeed.

  2. 2 Dave
    November 8, 2011 at 07:30

    “That’s a splendid luxury for the idle rich, Sparky,”

    Not anymore, classical education’s in the public domain these days. Just takes some spare time to work through and the determination to do it on your own. e.g. http://www.bartleby.com/hc/ I’ve been slowly working my way through these freebies for the past year(will probably take several more to finish). Ivory tower types don’t have a monopoly on this stuff anymore.

    • November 8, 2011 at 10:36

      Classical education’s in the public domain these days.

      Not quite: the classical canon is in the public domain these days, along with a whole bunch of content contemporary to the classics but scorned by humanities profs. Those profs would probably claim that just reading through the stuff on your own isn’t enough; that you’d need to be engaged by a classically-educated classics prof to gain the real value of a classical education. Of course, it’s in their best interests to do so.

      • November 9, 2011 at 04:46

        There is something to the claim that it helps to have a guide. But I suspect guides are pretty readily available via a google search, too.

        In many ways, as a political scientist I don’t teach my students anything they couldn’t readily find and learn for themselves, if they knew what to look for. My task is primarily to narrow their search efforts, streaming a good knowledge base toward them, then badgering them to get past their ideological blinders in thinking about the stuff. The last part is where a college prof may come in most handy, but of course it’s the hardest part of a political science prof’s job.

      • 5 LizziATX
        November 6, 2013 at 22:56

        sorry for commenting on such an old thread but…

        I just graduated from a top-teir public university with a Classics degree. I started out as a Math major but found I really hated it and switched. Your argument is that one could become knowledgable and proficient in the Classics with a simple google search. I could not disagree more! The classics are meant to be discussed, you know, socratic style. STEM on the other hand- those are subjects you could learn from google! My math and science professors (and I had a lot of them) did not teach me a damn thing! They were all dreadful teachers, many of them had only a tenuous grasp on the English language, and their disdain for undergrads was palpable. The only reason I did well in Calculus, physics, differential equations, linear algebra, and algebraic topology, i.e. all my college STEM classes, was that I self-taught. And for the record, classics proved more challenging and to be a higher workload than math ever was.

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