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The emerging issue of the liberal arts and careers

September 4, 2018

This month, a whole bunch of students from the class of 2022 started at Colleges around the US.
At Colgate, the one in my hometown, 58% of them are “full pays” — they pay the full sticker price. The sticker price is about 250K for four years.

(Note: at the top end of these full pays are the 1%, who can afford 250K like it is a fancy dinner with a good bottle of wine. They probably got 100 times that in the Trump/Ryan trillion dollar tax cuts. At the bottom of the full-pay range are people who probably had to take out a loan to get them into Colgate.)

Purchase made, just about the all the people at this school want to know how this investment will lead to a job. The school even built a gleaming new Career Building to shine a light on how the school will get people a job. This has some tension with faculty, who want students to go to grad school, even though these days, that can be a crippling financial decision.

The liberal arts and employment

It is tempting to look at the 54 majors at Colgate and wonder which ones are best at preparing someone for a job. Economics = Wall Street. Political Science = Washington. Computer Science = Silicon Valley. Psychology = Starbucks. Or probably, psychology = graduate school, which most-likely adds to the 1.4 trillion (1,400,000,000,000.00) in student loan debt.

This bears out in the data. Of the 689 students from the class of 2019 with LinkedIn profiles, 118 are Economics majors and 86 are Political Science majors. The next highest is psychology majors (46) but many of them are Econ minors and show internships on Wall Street in the summer on their LinkedIn profile. Biology general 18, and biology molecular 14, combine to an impressive 34 majors, and some will be on a pre-med track.

You can check all this out if you’re logged into LinkedIn.

Computer Science sits at only 25, below Sociology 27, and History 29, but that is due to the argument for Liberal Arts Computer Science, which isn’t being made well yet, and not just at Colgate.

That leaves Environmental Studies 23, Geography 23, and Philosophy 20, in that weird place of what will this get me? That doesn’t even include the 12 English majors and 3 music majors.

The argument for Liberal Arts

I’ve argued in the past that the power of the liberal arts is not in preparing people for a job today, but preparing them for the jobs tomorrow. As an English major, I’m doing a job now that didn’t exist when I graduated. But I can remember thinking the same thing at University – what on earth is this preparing me to be when I grow up?

But that argument seems to run hollow in an era where there isn’t time to rebound from debt. When I started working at Colgate, we would proudly say that the average debt was just 13K on graduation.

But that number doesn’t tell the whole story, obviously. Average numbers are just that, an average look at a situation. The average gift at Colgate is 48K per year. While that sounds super high, the average still leaves a gap of 22K per year.

That is an 88K gap from the average.

So while it is true that an English major like me can be prepared for a job that doesn’t exist, that was obviously truer in the last century.

Indeed, a look at the majors from the class of 1989 shows Economics 148, Political Science 106, and English 91.

So while it is true that I think a liberal arts degree in something like English is a sound way to prepare someone for any job, it is getting harder and harder to make the argument that it is “worth it.”

We need to make it worth it.

To make it worth it again, we need to collectively help our kids make this investment. One of the primary resources of a country is the education of our children. If we don’t invest in the education of our children, we are missing an opportunity to make a better future.
I genuinely think that everyone should have the opportunity to major in English. They will learn to make arguments, have their minds changed, have their minds blown, convince someone of something, and soundly, and coherently make an argument. That’s the thing that Steve Jobs was looking for when he said he would hire liberal arts majors.

The problem is, the math doesn’t really work at 70K per year. The people with loans feel like they NEED Econ, whereas the people who are full pays could take English and still go and work their mom’s firm without fear of debt.

America is approaching the heady days of the aristocratic age, where learned men studies Greek philosophy and old English texts. The people who need to pay back the loan need Econ and Comp Sci.

America though, needs students who can think for themselves.

What do you think?

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