College is a Promise, Unless You’re a Humanities Major

Frank Bruni covers some familiar terrain in this column from the Sunday Times. He points to data demonstrating that the choice of college major increasingly determines income and employability just as much as access to higher education. In short: what you study is just as important as earning a degree.

The column cites Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, whom I often find useful, to tell readers what most already know: if you want a job after college, major in a STEM field, nursing, or accounting; don’t major in the humanities. Bruni then trots out the pet anecdote of Silicon Valley and Tom Friedman:

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

Everyone in Silicon Valley knows this is bullshit. H1B workers are cheaper, full-stop. That’s why companies go through the hassle of recruiting them. There are 1.8 million unemployed engineers in this country. They can’t compete with cheaper imported or outsourced labor. Studying engineering may be a more secure path to post-graduate employment, but it doesn’t insulate one from the growing global talent pool. More importantly from a policy perspective, we don’t have a shortage on engineers. What we have is a shortage of cheap engineers.

The policies Bruni advocates here are designed to nudge students to STEM degrees, especially engineering. Make science and math cool beginning at the elementary level. Tie student aid packages to particular areas of study. Align local college curricula to the needs of local employers. These ideas betray a worldview in which some types of knowledge are more valuable than others because they are more marketable. This is why I’ve resisted calls to emphasize the marketability and utility of humanities degrees – that’s ground on which we cannot win. Instead, we must make the more fundamental assertion that knowledge of the humanities is valuable even if it is not marketable.

Presumably, Bruni knows this. I doubt he pursued his B.A. in English at Chapel Hill with a career in mind.

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