In his Feb. 15 opinion piece, “The Experience Economy,” New York Times columnist David Brooks, writing about Tyler Cowen’s book, The Great Stagnation, remarks, “During these years, commencement speakers have urged students to seek meaning and not money. Many people, it turns out, were listening.”
The college student of today is increasingly likely to major in a field that indulges his or her immediate interests, rather than be influenced by entrance pay or post-graduate job opportunities. And the numbers back this up.
In his new e-book, Launching the Innovation Renaissance, George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok notes that the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent over the past 25 years. Yet, the gross number of students graduating with degrees in computer science and chemical engineering has declined. The number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have remained constant. These numbers do not even reflect the number of international students in these fields who take their degrees home to foreign countries upon graduation.
Meanwhile, the number of college graduates in degrees like the visual and performing arts, psychology, communication and journalism have more than doubled. Tabarrok notes that the 89,140 graduates in the visual and performing arts in 2009 totaled more than the graduates in computer science, math and chemical engineering put together.
Students are simply not obtaining degrees in fields with fruitful job opportunities or great pay. For the liberal arts graduate, work is harder to find and wages are lower. All the while, college tuition has become more expensive and the number of students who default on their debt continues to increase.
In the larger scope of things, the lack of students in STEM presents us with a set of serious economic repercussions. If anything, it’s a reason to jump on the Great Stagnation train being driven by Cowen.
Unemployment woes continue to mire the nation’s economic landscape, especially among the under-25 crowd. In a move that doesn’t bode well for years to come, degrees in the arts, journalism or psychology are not likely to spur future job creation the way that STEM graduates are.
So what gives?
Some of the STEM fields like computer science may have become more complex over the years, particularly in an environment where exposure to computer science in high school is atypical. This effect in certain majors could turn off prospective students who then flock to the liberal arts.
But the explanation for our present predicament seems more nuanced. Earlier this year, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa released Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a book pointing out academic underachievement among undergraduates. But it was what they wrote in a New York Times follow-up opinion piece that really struck a chord with me.
“The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly. The customer is always right,” remarked Arum and Roska.
We live in a culture that has been shaped by the growing divergence between the once synonymous concepts of income and standard of living. Too many millenials (myself included) have chased the latter at the expense of the former. But instead of showing students the numbers, or introducing the idea of getting their tuition’s worth by pursuing a major with job prospects, universities have only nurtured this yearning. More so than ever, the focus of four-year universities seems to involve maximizing the perception of an idealized experience rather than actually preparing students for life after graduation.
The decision to chase one’s on-campus dreams rather than focusing on money and long-term job prospects is a seemingly anti-materialistic way of looking at the world. But ultimately, it’s backfired. Shifting focus from the sheer production of wealth that pervaded generations past has not only afflicted recent graduates. It has provided less employment opportunities for individuals lower on the income ladder, as well.
Our universities have let us down, and it’s upon them to balance a culture that accommodates students’ desires to take on their interests, while appropriately emphasizing the realities of the outside world that awaits.