Who Needs Philosophy? Colleges Defend the Humanities Despite High Costs, Dim Job Prospects

As rising tuition and mounting student debt makes 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 are more likely to lead to jobs and salaries that justify the cost of four-year college education.

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Jan Sonnenmair

Ed Ray, president of Oregon State University

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.

Ray’s anxiety was understandable. As rising tuition and mounting student debt makes 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 are more likely to lead to jobs and salaries that justify the cost of four-year college education.

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

That question is currently on the minds of many high school seniors and their parents, as they await college admissions decisions and the students consider what classes to take. And it’s driving a debate over the very purpose of higher education—whether universities and colleges exist to teach people general knowledge, or to train them for specific jobs.

This is no longer 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 it could lead entire departments to disappear. And they contend that what would be lost is 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.

“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.

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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” degrees in science, technology, engineering, math, and the health professions. Those majors would cost students 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 Governor 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, Governor 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 in a January radio interview. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Wisconsin Governor 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. Amazon.com, 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.”

Even some inside academia—especially at community colleges, which are largely vocational and which see the debate as an opening to promote their value—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.

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Meanwhile, a record 88 percent of this year’s freshmen at four-year colleges and universities 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. So widespread has this sentiment become that several major associations of independent universities and colleges have launched campaigns to promote the humanities.

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.”

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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 average $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. And the exodus from the humanities may accelerate as more states join Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia in publishing the earnings of graduates by college, degree, and major.

“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 Ivy Tech’s Snyder, an engineer who also has a master’s degree in business administration.

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, capacity for 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 Oklahoma State’s Sternberg.

“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—the kinds of graduates the association’s member colleges and universities contend they’re turning out.

For the long-term health of the economy, they’re right, says John Dorrer, a program director at Jobs for the Future, and advocacy group that tries to streamline students’ paths to college and careers. “We need to look at the durable skill sets people need and not be at the whim of every short-term work place need.”

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This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. It’s one of a series of reports about workforce development and higher education.