Thomas College, a liberal arts school in the northeastern US state of Maine, advertises itself as Home of the Guaranteed Job. Students who can’t find work in their fields within six months of graduation can come back to take classes free or have the college pay student loans for a year.
The University of Louisiana is eliminating its philosophy major. Michigan State University is doing away with American studies and classics, after years of declining enrollments in those subjects.
Students and parents are focused on what comes after college. What’s the return on investment? How will that major translate into a job?
The pressure on US institutions to answer those questions is prompting changes from the admissions office to the career centre. But even as they rush to prove their relevance, colleges and universities worry students are specialising too early, that they are so focused on picking the perfect major (in the US system, the subject their degree is focussed on) that they don’t allow time for self-discovery, much less late blooming.
“The phrase drives me crazy — ‘What are you going to do with your degree?’— but I see increasing concerns about that,” says Katharine Brooks of the career centre, University of Texas-Austin, and author of You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career.
The shift in attitudes is reflected in curriculum. Nationally, business has been the most popular major for the last 15 years. Campuses also report a boom in public health fields, and many institutions are building up environmental science and just about anything prefixed with “bio.”
Reflecting the new economic and global realities, they are adding orexpanding majors in Chinese and Arabic. The University of Michigan has seen a 38 per cent increase in students enrolling in Asian language courses since 2002, while French has dropped by 5 per cent.
In Michigan, where the recession hit early and hard, universities are particularly focused on being relevant to the job market. “There’s been this drumbeat that Michigan has got to diversify its economy,” says Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan.
Coleman says she had an “aha” moment five years ago, when the director of admissions was describing the incoming class and noted that 10 per cent — 600 students — had started a business in high school.
The university has responded with about 100 entrepreneurship courses across the curriculum, including “Financing Research Commercialisation” and “Engineering Social Venture Creation”.
But Coleman is wary of training students for just one thing — “creating them to do some little widget,” as she says. Michigan has begun a speaker series featuring alumni or other successful entrepreneurs who come in to talk about how their careers benefited from what Coleman calls “core knowledge.”
Colleges say they have the hardest time explaining the link between what they teach and the kind of job and salary a student can expect on the other end. “There’s no immediate impact, that’s the problem,” says John J. Neuhauser, the president of St. Michael’s College in Vermont.
“The humanities tend to educate people much farther out. They’re looking for an impact that lasts over decades, not just when you’re 22.”
When prospective students and their parents visit, he says, they ask about placement rates, internships and alumni involvement in job placement. These are questions, he says, that he never heard 10 years ago.