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Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Nate Silver on College Majors and Careers

New York Times:  As More Attend College, Majors Become More Career-Focused, by Nate Silver:

A popular article by Verlyn Klinkenborg last week in The New York Times Sunday Review lamented the decline of English majors at top colleges and universities. Mr. Klinkenborg is worried about the “technical narrowness” of some college programs and the “rush to make education pay off”– which, he writes, “presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring.”

I am sympathetic to certain parts of Mr. Klinkenborg’s hypothesis: for instance, the potential value of writing skills even for students who major in scientific or technical fields, and the risks that specialization can pose to young minds that are still in their formative stages.

But Mr. Klinkenborg also neglects an important fact: more American students are attending college than ever before. He is correct to say that the distribution of majors has become more career-focused, but these degrees may be going to students who would not have gone to college at all in prior generations.

In 2011, according to the federal government’s Digest of Education Statistics, about 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded by American colleges, roughly double the 840,000 degrees in 1971. The number of Americans of college age has not increased nearly so rapidly. We can approximate the number of Americans who would be at the typical age to receive a bachelor’s degree by evaluating the number of 21-year-olds in the United States population. In 2011, there were about 4.6 million 21-year-olds in the United States, compared with 3.7 million in 1971 — only about a 25 percent increase instead of double.

A related calculation is the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per 21-year-old in the United States. In 1971, there were 26.7 bachelor’s degrees awarded for every 100 21-year-olds in the United States. By 2011, that figure had increased to 43.4 degrees, about a 60 percent increase.

The relative decline of majors like English is modest when accounting for the increased propensity of Americans to go to college. In fact, the number of new degrees in English is fairly similar to what it has been for most of the last 20 years as a share of the college-age population. ...

Something of the same story holds for other traditional college majors, including many fields that are grouped under the heading of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. ...

[P]erhaps there can be a balance between recognizing two concepts: on the one hand, that college has become more of a necessity for more careers and a wider array of Americans; on the other hand, Americans are now more likely than before to change professions throughout their working lives. Perhaps we should at once encourage or require college students to take coursework in English – and tell them to be wary about majoring in it.

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