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Liberal arts, the job market, and Pete Seeger

January 31, 2014

  mini graduation cap on money, by SalFalk

This was the first week of the new semester at Sacramento State, and my courses seem to have gotten off to a good start. Unlike last semester, I didn’t have students sitting on the floor, telling me that they couldn’t find a spot in the classes they need to graduate. I don’t know to what extent that’s due to the recent modest budget increases for public higher education, but for now at least everyone has a chair.

That makes this a good time to consider the latest flurry of fretting over the employment prospects of liberal arts majors. Yesterday President Obama stoked the job market anxieties of art history majors. Such anxieties are pervasive, and many students these days decide to major in business, nursing, and other professional degree programs in part because they assume those degrees promise more income than a liberal arts degree. And that’s no surprise, given the messages conveyed by many administrators and faculty, as well as our culture as a whole. Especially in tough economic times, students constantly hear that they should choose a “practical” major.

There’s nothing wrong with figuring out how you’re going to pay the bills, but the assumption that liberal arts majors will end up on the streets has been repeatedly debunked, most recently in a report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment. The report confirms other recent studies showing that liberal arts majors actually have higher long-term job earnings than those with professional degrees.

Median Annual Earnings by Age-Group and Undergraduate Major (2010-11)

Median Annual Earnings by Age-Group and Undergraduate Major (2010-11)

Humanities and social science majors do best when they go on to graduate school, and if you only consider those who don’t get a graduate degree, humanities and social science majors are at the bottom of the income scale, but by less than most people assume:

Median earnings for graduates with only baccalaureate degrees (2010-11)

Median earnings for graduates with only baccalaureate degrees (2010-11)

The report also makes a point confirmed by other studies: employers like to hire liberal arts majors. As reported by Inside Higher Ed:

Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically . . . all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.

And in the end, of course, as Jordan Weissmann argues, “Money Is a Terrible Way to Measure the Value of a College Major.” Students should expect much more from college than a high salary. Among other things, they should expect to learn how to think critically, write clearly, and speak publicly about issues that matter to them — regardless of their major.

All of this gives me one more reason to take a break and listen to some of the songs of Pete Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94. One of the best in this context is the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes,” which Seeger made famous, and which my parents used to sing with my sister and I in the car whenever we drove past Daly City on the way to the beach. (Today people might know it from the opening segment of the television series “Weeds.”) Like most people, I thought it was just about suburban conformity, and the cheerful tune might have motivated Tom Lehrer to say (according to Christopher Hitchens) that it was “the most sanctimonious song ever written.” But listening to it again now, it seems broader than that, more chilling, even downright Orwellian:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same.

Nowadays a lot more people go to college than when the song was written, and maybe some students see the pressure to conform less in the suburbs than in the universities.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Friedman permalink
    February 1, 2014 6:04 AM

    I enjoyed reading Mark’s post. In general, I agree with him about the value of a liberal arts degree. The problem that students face who pursue a more vocationally oriented degree is that the job market may change dramatically, leaving the students with no job prospects in their chosen field, no academic preparation for other potential occupations and a large amount of student debt.

    My experiences this semester has been quite different from Mark’s. I have commented to friends that I have never seen this level of desperation to add classes from students. I have had a number of emails from students who say that they are unable to add enough classes to be considered a full-time student and eligible for student aid. My hands have been tied by an instruction from the Department chair (following directions from the Registrar) not to add more than 5 students per section.

    Yesterday, an email went out from the Registrar which talked about students who were “crashing and crying.” This email recognized the incredible pressure that some instructors were feeling because of the desperation of students who need to get classes. It seems to me that once again the University has funded too few classes for the number of students that it has admitted.

    My concern these days is that the job market that college graduates are facing is dismal. I have read estimates that anywhere from 30 to 50% of recent college graduates are underemployed or unemployed. In June 2013 the Federal Reserve reported that almost 50% of recent college graduates were underemployed, meaning that they were working in a field which did not require a college degree. What is even worse is that many of these students graduated from college with a level of student debt that burdens their future. Recent news has come out that current college debt is larger than total consumer credit card debt.

    The problem of youth underemployment is one that faces not only America but much of Europe. It is one of the biggest crises of our time and one that government needs to address–immediately. A democracy that fails to respond to the needs of its young people is a government that is not likely to long endure.


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