Choose major based on interest, not potential

By Arts & Culture Reporter

Since the Great Recession, there has been a strong and consistent push for high school graduates to pursue college degrees. Students are generally prodded in the direction of a traditional, four-year degree—and perhaps even more specifically, toward science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, degrees.

The digital age gave rise to advances in technology, which in turn created a multitude of tech-related jobs and a demand for highly-skilled workers to fill these positions. Jobs like engineering and information technology positions became abundant during this boom. 

As expected, students responded in droves. According to a Sept. 7 New Yorker article titled “College Calculus,” John Cassidy asserts that the number of college graduates increased by nearly 40 percent since the early 2000s. An April 2014 University of California, Los Angeles study found a nearly 50 percent increase in STEM-related students among incoming freshmen in 2007 and 2008. 

This spurt in the number of college graduates—an “education bubble,” if you will—has had the paradoxical effect of forcing over-educated and over-qualified students to take positions which require a lower-level degree, or even no degree. This pushes less-qualified applicants out of the running for jobs.

There is no single theory that explains exactly why this happened, but a prominent hypothesis suggests the technology advances—which originally benefited recent grads and skilled workers—is now seen as a detriment. Systems with rapid and intelligent processing power can replace the jobs of data analysts and translators.

The draw to STEM-related degrees was job security, or the promise of a higher-paying job. With that now gone, what is the allure of these programs?

The answer is what draws students to any number of fields: passion. Because there is no promise of economic outcomes based on degrees, students are more likely to pursue a field they genuinely care about, ranging from art and design to Arabic to any number of sciences. This large array of courses generally falls under the umbrella of the liberal arts and sciences.

However, liberal arts degrees have come under fire from government officials, including President Barack Obama, who recently took a jab at the value of art history and its job prospects, and presidential-aspirant Sen. Marco Rubio, who criticized Obama after he apologized for his remarks. Many of these criticisms are based on the misconception that science and tech-based jobs offer more promising economic opportunity.

Cassidy states that historically, universities were never meant for vocational purposes, and that “wage stagnation and rising inequality have emerged as serious problems [and have brought] economic arguments for higher education to the fore.” 

“Promoters of higher education have long emphasized its role in meeting civic needs,” Cassidy said. “Puritans who established Harvard were concerned about a shortage of clergy. [Educational theorist] Dewey insisted that a proper education would make people better citizens, with enlarged moral imaginations.” 

So, to STEM or not to STEM? The answer is based on each student’s rationale. If a student is pursuing biology or physics because they feel it leads to better opportunities economically, they should be advised this is an antiquated falsity.

However, if students choose to pursue these careers because the human body interests them, or because figuring out how celestial bodies can stay in orbit is thought-provoking, they should be encouraged to follow those paths. If other students cannot sleep at the thought of human inequality, or how the heck George Orwell was able to craft an allegory for Soviet Russia out of farm animals, they should be encouraged to dig deeply and find the answers.