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A World Without English Majors? Why Colleges Should Tell Students About Job Prospects Before They Commit

The U.K. wants to require schools to disclose employment data by college major.

Recent college grads still looking for full-time employment—or faced with the prospect of moving back home to live with mom and dad—are probably cursing their English and philosophy degrees. But while they're sending out resumes and getting rejected, in May there were 2.6 million unfilled jobs. The problem is that many of those positions are in science and tech—fields that most grads simply aren't prepared to enter. Now officials in the United Kingdom are proposing an interesting solution to the mismatch between majors and job prospects. They plan to require colleges to collect data about the employment and salary prospects of each degree. That way, majors with a poor employment track record will be "named and shamed" and the degrees with the worst records several years in a row would eventually be axed.

Sure, there are sites, like PayScale, that have data on how much grads make based on what they studied, but how many 18-year-old freshman are actually going to look that up on their own? So imagine that when a freshman goes in for a mandatory first meeting with an adviser to talk about her proposed course of study, she gets transparent information on the long-term job prospects and average salary for graduates, by major, from that specific college. It's not very useful to talk about the employment prospects of philosophy majors nationally because, let's face it, if you go to Harvard you can study a philosophy and still have a shot at a high-paying job with a management consulting firm, but if you go to a small satellite campus of a state school that's probably not the case.

It wouldn't be so difficult for colleges to poll students right before commencement to see how many have full-time employment and what their starting salary is going to be. That way, students will know if most grads can only score a part-time gig bagging groceries or if they're actually making a wage that enables them to get out on their own and pay back their student loans. Schools could poll grads again six months after graduation, and again a year after graduation in order to give incoming freshman a better picture of their job and salary prospects.

Of course, the controversial part of this idea will come when it's time to decide which majors need to be ended. Can you imagine the fight if, for example, the data revealed that grads from a school's ethnic studies programs had fewer job prospects and campus officials tried to close it? Some colleges are already quietly phasing out programs that aren't in demand—and those tend to be majors that just aren't practical in the job market. The number of European language majors offered has been declining steeply since the 1970s.

To be clear, students shouldn't choose a major solely based on how much they might earn after graduation. Everyone would just sign up to be a petroleum engineer. Our society is certainly better off having ethnic studies and philosophy majors in the mix. But with hefty college price tags—a trend which shows no sign of slowing—and thousands of dollars of student debt becoming the norm, students need to know what they're getting into financially before they commit to a course of study.

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