Higher Edge: Major decision, minor support

November 13, 2014

Between the rising costs of college tuition and the lingering effects of the recession, it’s no surprise that the specialized training versus liberal arts education debate has yet to be settled. But the truth is, the lofty philosophical debate over whether students should major in engineering or English is both misguided and misdirected.

Rather than chastising graduates for choosing liberal arts majors that won’t lead to six-figure salaries, we need to start looking at the gendered issues within different professional fields that impact career success. Instead of blaming academic disciplines for graduate failure, we need to start challenging universities to provide stronger career services and resources for students.

Looking at wages as the consequence of major alone, without disaggregating by gender, forgets to mind the wage gap.

“A male English major makes the same as a female math major, and a female economics major makes less than a male history major,” argues Ben Schmidt, a Northeastern University professor specializing in the relationship between history and data. “The next time you see someone arguing that only fools major in art history, remind them that the real thing holding back most English majors in the workplace isn’t their degree, but systemic discrimination against their sex in the American economy.”

Statistically speaking, however, the numbers do look bad for graduates in the humanities. Students who majored in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields are more likely to make the highest salaries both immediately after college and later on, even without a graduate degree. In fact, PayScale’s annual college salary report shows that all but one of this year’s top 20 highest-paying majors are within the STEM fields.

I’m not saying a petroleum engineering major should earn as much money as an early childhood education major. I’m saying that colleges should value the students studying the latter as much as the former. Unfortunately, for the most part, they don’t.

Georgetown’s Career Center hosts myriad events, information sessions, and networking opportunities—if you’re interested in finance and consulting. Granted, it sends industry-specific emails to students interested in government or non-profit sectors, marketing and entertainment, and other career categories, but those opportunities are fewer and farther in between. Among the top 10 employers of 2013 Georgetown grads were Deloitte, J.P. Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Accenture, and Barclays. The top spot, however, went to Teach for America.

It’s understandable that companies within business sectors would recruit heavily on campuses, particularly at elite academic institutions—business is the most popular major in the U.S., with roughly one in five undergraduate degrees awarded in the discipline each year. Education majors, on the other hand, have decreased to 6 percent of graduates in 2011 from 22 percent in 1970, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And still we wonder why the American education system is in crisis.

Universities advertise opportunities with TFA, but these are transient job opportunities with a two-year commitment requirement, which most students use as a resume-builder to get into graduate school or land a job in a field unrelated to education. It’s not that universities necessarily value teaching—they value the prestige of the TFA reputation.

As an American Studies major, I’m no stranger to the question, “So what are you going to do with that?” Granted, when choosing an interdisciplinary major, you need to make an extra effort to focus what you want to do with your life. Students need to be proactive in finding job and internship opportunities, but if a university is going to tout the career resources it offers, it must offer them to all types of students.

Just because certain fields pay more doesn’t mean they are more valuable to society. Aside from the tired-but-true argument that a college education is invaluable regardless of major, the reality is that society needs a variety of skills, voices, opinions, and passions. Yes, women should be encouraged to pursue paths in areas traditionally dominated by men, like computer science or business, but they have every right to pursue a sociology major if that’s what they want, and they should never be made to feel inferior for choosing a major deemed useless by societal standards of success.

Just as I could never pass an accounting exam, I have a business school friend who cringes at the prospect of writing a persuasive government policy paper. Both of us are intelligent, and both of us will put our academic interests and skills to use. One of us, however, will have more institutional and societal help along the way than the other.

As Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Universities need to start valuing their fish—or at least start showing it.


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