Whose Fault is It If Your Degree is Useless?

Many college graduates are humming the lines to What do you do with a BA in English? This opening song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q is appropriately subtitled: It sucks to be me. Georgetown confirms this malaise with their recent unemployment findings: 14.7% (informational/clerical systems majors); 12.8% (architecture majors); 9.8% (arts and humanities majors); and 9.2% (policy and law). The Avenue Q song, written circa 2003, is almost quaint and nostalgic in its focus on the study of English because it seems these days a degree in most anything leads to inordinate debt and a refrain of, It sucks to be me.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has introduced a Know Before You Go Act, a student’s Bill of Rights, which will insure that institutions release accurate vital statistics about completion rates, job prospects, and cost before students choose a college and select a major. With public school guidance counselors servicing caseloads of a hundred or more students, a growing independent college consulting industry has emerged creating a vast divide between students who know how to apply versus students who know how to find and finance the right school and major.

Sen. Wyden’s bill is a noble endeavor to democratize access to higher education. Current college cost are astronomical and as a first generation college graduate of public schools and universities, I know first-hand the importance of access to high quality affordable education. If Wyden’s bill, however, is not partnered with systemic changes within higher education, the working class students this bill intends to empower will still find their options diminished as more and more Americans view college as a luxury item and the liberal arts tradition, a founding principle of the modern university system, is eliminated.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields where students follow a prescriptive technical trajectory tend to yield lucrative post-graduate employment and are touted as the best, if not only option. The data suggests that humanities study is frivolous or even dangerous, particularly at the graduate level, due to the un(der)employment of liberal arts majors (defined broadly as all the disciplines that do not fall under the STEM umbrella). Higher education should not be a binary choice between STEM and the humanities.

An integrated STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts, Engineering, Mathematics) approach to learning is the key component missing in our current departmentalized fields of scholarship. Interdisciplinary collaboration fosters ingenuity and innovation. Although the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study consistently cites the declining mathematics scores of American students, creativity is one aspect of economic development where Americans still have a competitive advantage.

Educators, students, and most importantly institutions themselves need to re-conceptualize the function and purpose of a humanities education in the 21st century.

Harvard recognizes this need and is actively rebranding and marketing its humanities program to assist students with options to visualize how their liberal arts study can lead to rich, fulfilling, and successful careers, particularly when partnered with STEM courses.

This STEAM approach to learning must be fostered at all levels, beginning with university administration. Educators can only actively design interdisciplinary courses that make specific connections to real-world skills and relevant applications if institutions make a concerted effort to support and reward these efforts in the tenure, promotion, and contract renewal process. Perhaps Wyden’s bill can be expanded to insure fair labor policies to resist the adjunctification of higher education and insure that students receive high quality instruction from those with the time, energy, and resources to assist them — a full time tenured professor. As a former 22-year-old teaching assistant at a major research university, I was not the best teacher for my students because I was young, inexperienced, and poor (it’s hard to concentrate on teaching your classes when you’re hungry). 

Graduates who already have a degree in-hand need to be creative in how they apply their studies to the current job market by using social media to build their local and global connections, to take risks, and to collaborate with others. Most importantly graduates need grit. The latter portion of this blog post by Prof. Jonathan Senchyne, written when he was a Cornell graduate student, reflects on the importance of giving working class students accurate information about the job market, but also encouraging them to follow their interests because in this economic climate there are no certainties.

A college dropout still has more lifetime earning potential then someone who never attended. Working class students need the facts, but they also deserve the opportunity to explore a variety of disciplines and find their strengths. Sen. Wyden’s bill has tremendous potential as long as students understand that although the path might be thorny, a college education is still a necessity.