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China's Short-Sighted Move to Eliminate Less Lucrative College Majors

The Chinese Ministry of Education will eliminate fields of study from which fewer than 60 percent of graduates get jobs.

The latest twist in the debate over the purpose of a college education comes from China, where entire fields of study will be eliminated because they don't lead to jobs. The Chinese Ministry of Education announced last week that college majors from which the employment rate for graduates falls below 60 percent for two years in a row will be downsized or axed completely.

The Chinese government hasn’t announced which majors could be on the chopping block, but according to The Wall Street Journal, some schools are already cutting programs in areas of study—Russian, for example—that don’t directly prepare graduates for the country’s manufacturing sector.

The United States' economy remains more diverse than China's, so American college graduates regardless of major are more likely to be employed than their peers with high school diplomas. But America's job growth skews heavily toward the science, technology, engineering, and math sectors, so does it make sense to follow China's lead and cut back on liberal arts majors?

During an economic downturn, it's easy to say yes. After all, English majors probably aren’t prepared for the tech jobs of the future. But thinking of college as just a glorified trade school is a short-sighted approach. Sure, graduates need to acquire useful knowledge and skills to help them get jobs, but there are less tangible benefits to a liberal arts education. An ethnic studies major could take premed courses, go to medical school, and become a culturally aware doctor. And because most people change careers several times, she could find herself in a different field entirely or become an entrepreneur.

A similar natural selection process is already happening organically in U.S. universities without any government interference. Since 1970, the number of American schools offering majors in Romance languages and literature, for example, has declined 17 percentage points because of declining student demand. Some evolution is inevitable and desirable. But it's important to remember that not every major is a direct pipeline into a specific career—and since many of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet, we might not want them to be.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Kyle Taylor, Dream It. Do It. World Tour

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