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Oregon State University President Ed Ray flinched when a stranger confronted him to say his daughter had just graduated from the school with a degree in philosophy.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ ” says Ray, who expected he would have to fend off yet another diatribe about the questionable value, in a weak employment market, of majoring in philosophy and other humanities subjects.

In fact, the man wanted to thank him, Ray says. His daughter, he said, had just gotten a good job as an ethicist at a hospital.

Decline of the humanities
Oregon State University President Ed Ray (Photo: Oregon State University)

Ray’s anxiety was understandable. As rising tuition and student debt make prospective income a bigger part of choosing a major, humanities disciplines such as philosophy and history are under attack in favor of such fields as engineering and business, which students, parents and policymakers like because they offer jobs and salaries that justify the cost of university tuition.

“Higher education has really pressed this idea that if you have a college education, you’ll make more,” says Ray, who is an economist by training. That strategy has backfired, he says. “Shame on us. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the next step is, which major pays the most.”

That question is now driving a debate over the very purpose of higher education—whether colleges and universities exist to teach people general knowledge, or to train them for specific jobs.

It’s not just an academic conversation. Only 8 percent of students now major in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967.

Worried that enrollment in these subjects will continue to slip, university officials say entire departments could disappear. And they contend that what would be lost is not just general literacy, but exactly what employers say they really need: the kind of educations that teach students how to think, innovate, communicate, work in teams and solve problems.

Learn and Earn

This story is part of a series about workforce development and higher education.

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“The risk is that we become shortsighted,” says Robert Sternberg, provost at Oklahoma State University. “We have become obsessed with cost. We need to be concerned with value: What use will this education be to me in a rapidly changing world?”

So far, the humanities are losing.

A task force in Florida has recommended that public universities there charge more for “non-strategic majors” such as history and English, which it says are in less demand than “strategic,” high-demand degrees in science, technology, engineering, math and the health professions. Those would cost less.

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

In North Carolina, Gov. Patrick McCrory also questioned whether taxpayers should underwrite programs devised by what he called an “educational elite” that don’t lead to employment. “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it,” McCrory said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Decline of the humanities
Kelley Engineering Center (Photo: Oregon State University)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said that public technical colleges there should be judged on whether “young people [are] getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us.”

Companies that reimburse their employees for tuition are also getting choosier about which subjects they’ll pay for., for instance, last year launched a tuition-assistance program for full-time employees, but it will pay only for “courses that lead to technical and vocational certifications or associate’s degrees in eligible in-demand fields.”

Popular culture, too, often dismisses the value of humanities degrees. The science major asks why something works, goes an old joke; the engineering major asks how it works, the accounting major asks how much it will cost, and the humanities major asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

Even some inside academia—especially at community colleges, which are largely vocational—are joining the chorus of voices preaching that a four-year liberal-arts education has become a bad investment and a luxury for the elite, compared to an education that trains a student for a specific job.

“We should all be blessed enough to pursue life’s passion, but not everybody is,” says Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, who says that the economy cannot support more art-history or philosophy majors.

Meanwhile, a record 88 percent of this year’s freshmen say “getting a better job” is the top reason they enrolled in college, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reports—17 percentage points higher than before the economic downturn started pushing tuition up and the supply of jobs down. That’s more than said they enrolled “to learn about things that interest me.”

More than two-thirds say the goal of going to college is to make more money, compared to 44 percent in 1976, according to a survey conducted for the recent book, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Illinois State University Professor Diane R. Dean. Today, it’s no longer about “going to school or getting a job,” says Scott Evenbeck, founding president of the New Community College at the City University of New York. “It’s about going to school and getting a job.”

So widespread has this sentiment become that several major associations of independent and liberal-arts colleges and universities have launched campaigns to defend themselves against it.

The Council of Independent Colleges in November began a “Campaign for the Liberal Arts.” The Association of American Colleges and Universities, or AAC&U, had already started something similar, and in January adopted a new mission statement that emphasizes the importance of what it now prefers to call “liberal education,” which it says gives students “broad knowledge and transferable skills.”

It’s an uphill battle. Students are more likely to get a job with a degree in the sciences than in the humanities, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. The unemployment rate for recent history majors, for example, is 10.2 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for students who majored in engineering and 7.4 percent for business grads.

They’ll also make more money. A newly minted humanities major who does get a job will earn an average of $36,988 a year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports, while an engineer right out of college will make $61,913. The gap continues in mid-career, when engineers still make 30 percent more than history graduates, according to new research by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“There’s been an inordinate amount of cost increase for both public and private education that makes students have to think about the return on investment, especially since so much of that investment is borrowed money,” says Snyder of Ivy Tech, an engineer who also has a master’s degree in business administration.

The exodus from the humanities is likely to accelerate as more states join Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia in publishing the earnings of graduates by college, degree and major.


The Hechinger Report’s Jon Marcus discusses new figures showing the shift within public universities and colleges to charge more of their costs to students and families as state support declines.

Colleges and universities fire back that what employers really seek from graduates is not specific job-related know-how, but such characteristics as critical thinking, innovation, and an ability to write and speak well.

“For many people, the liberal arts seem hoity-toity, but these are the skills employers want,” says Sternberg, at Oklahoma State.

“Being able to read things critically and then being able to articulate how you can change things going forward and assess things, the ability to work in teams—those skills are important everywhere,” says Oregon State’s Ray. “If you talk to people who run companies that hire engineers, they will tell you, ‘I need an engineer who can write.’ ”

Nearly 90 percent of corporate executives want employees with verbal and written communication skills, according to a survey by the AAC&U. Seventy-five percent want graduates who understand ethical decision-making, and 70 percent say they need creative and innovative workers.

For the long-term health of the economy, they’re right, says John Dorrer, a program director at the advocacy organization Jobs for the Future. “We need to look at the durable skill sets people need and not be at the whim of every short-term workplace need.”

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