Once again, the college-bound are being warned away from majoring in fine arts. Or history. Or psychology. Humanities in general.
Science, technology, engineering and math, it would seem, are the only career paths forward. The unemployment rate for fine arts majors is 11.2 percent, according to Wall Street 24/7; that’s exactly twice the average for college grads as a whole.
The Obama administration was big on pushing STEM education, saying that America is suffering a shortage of people in the sciences and that our future employment picture depends on more students heading for the labs. Students are beginning to drop liberal arts like the plague – and with that drop in demand, colleges are looking at which majors they should eliminate.
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It’s downright iconoclastic these days to consider that maybe students should major in what they truly love (with some caveats). It’s practically un-American to suggest that, as important as careers are, all the rhetoric has led us to reduce college education to jobs prep. Almost unmentioned are the goals of enlightening our minds, broadening our awareness and deepening our thinking.
Probably a lot of that change is because college itself is so expensive. Broadened horizons aren’t enough to pay off college loans.
Sure, as a whole, STEM majors enjoy significantly higher employment rates, and psychology and arts majors have lower ones. Still, that 11.2 percent unemployment rate for fine arts majors means that the vast majority have jobs. A difference of 6 percentage points doesn’t exactly make the arts a road to ruin.
It’s possible that their employment is irregular shifts behind the cash register at The Gap, but the arts graduates I know are doing fine. One is putting her artistic eye to good use as an apprentice to an interior designer. Another employs his arts skills in marketing; a third directed her creative mind toward figuring out how to be the top sales person at her B2B company.
Besides, science and tech fields aren’t always meadows of career happiness. Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at Harvard, has written a book about how the Great STEM Shortage has been greatly exaggerated. He points out that a shortage should be accompanied by rising wages and job growth, neither of which has happened. In some fields, such as petroleum engineering, there is indeed a huge demand for grads. Not so with many other forms of engineering, computer science and especially biomedical.
More to the point is a Gallup poll released in June. It surveyed 95,000 people who had attended college – from dropouts to doctorates – on any regrets they had about their education. STEM majors were less likely to have regrets about their course of study than those in the liberal arts, but get this: Liberal arts majors who had jobs or internships during college were just as likely to be satisfied with their choice of studies as their more scientifically inclined classmates.
In other words, the problem might not be what students are studying, but the lack of experience in knowing how to apply their skills to the work world.
We’re lucky to have the scientists and engineers who will bring us cures for diseases and ever more sustainable ways of producing energy. But we’re scaring too many young people out of pursuing their passions for no particularly great reason. The mice in the children’s book “Frederick” needed to bring in food for cold-weather storage, but they also needed the winter poet who warmed them with words.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.