By Mary Cullinan
My first teaching job after graduate school was in the business school at California State University, Hayward (now East Bay). Most of my students, junior and senior business majors, were excited about a business career. But some of them were business majors only because their parents insisted. Many of those parents had not gone to college themselves, and they saw their son's or daughter's business degree as a path to success for the whole family. I'm sure it was a good choice for many. It was the 1980's; business was booming.
But some of my students were discouraged. They yearned to major in science, in English, in theatre, but they couldn't disappoint their parents. Although I'd urge them to take electives outside business, I resisted suggesting they change majors. (Well, I sometimes advised the more unhappy accounting majors that marketing might be a better choice.)
I think about those frustrated business majors now that conversations nationwide have heated up about college majors and salaries. Similar to the post-Sputnik panic that the U.S. wasn't teaching enough math and science, now there is much chest-pounding about how we have too many art and sociology majors. They'll never get a job! It's an outrage! Public money shouldn't go toward English majors! They're all back living with their parents!
Lists are regularly published showing what former engineering majors make twenty years on and what former English majors make. (Somehow the lists haven't located the English majors I knew who went on to Goldman Sachs or major law firms.)
Schemes are being proposed. Let's discourage humanities majors through differential tuition; English majors should pay more than engineering majors. Let's provide huge scholarship incentives only for tech majors. Let's eliminate "low paying majors" from public universities.
Remember H.L. Mencken's quip: "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." It's hard to know where to begin with such wrong-headed proposals.
First of all, schools could absolutely do a better job to excite students about STEM fields. I memorized my way through math and science courses and did well, but I loathed every minute. A variety of teaching approaches can engage more students who might become math or science majors.
That said, students should have choices. Many students tell me they don't plan to make tons of money. They want to teach school in Guatemala. They want to reduce homelessness. They want to make a difference. Most of us don't want to see students slotted into tech or science tracks if their passions lie elsewhere.
However, universities should take students' futures seriously. We should intentionally help students consider options. We should help them develop skills beyond what they learn in textbooks. We should help them work toward a career they will love.
At Southern Oregon University, we're helping students develop their curiosity and imagination, their ability to collaborate and solve problems. Whether our students major in computer science, accounting, or English, we want them to thrive in a volatile and complex environment.
We're expanding the number of student jobs on campus and consciously helping students in those jobs improve their professional skills. We're connecting Honors College students with community leaders to mentor and advise them about career opportunities. We're emphasizing practical, applied projects that connect students with communities.
Universities can do a better job helping students be successful after graduation. Our complex world needs complex skills. We can help our students plan for their future. But we shouldn't be bullied into emphasizing "high paying" majors.
In a month or so, thousands of college students will walk across a stage and graduate. They're heading into difficult, rapidly changing environments.
We in universities have worked in partnership with these students over the past few years. If our partnerships have been successful, the vast majority of those graduates will find success.
I hope all of them find careers they love.