Hustlin': Why We Need to Stop Obsessing Over What College Majors Make Us Rich

We get it, English majors are poor. But instead of following the money, shouldn't we be asking why our culture undervalues arts and humanities?


Hustlin' is back as a permanent series. Every week, we'll go beyond the pitying articles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.

Every few months, like clockwork, a new study (the latest from researchers at Georgetown [PDF]) concludes that arts majors can't get jobs and that engineering degrees are the only way to guarantee a living wage. Then The New York Times prints the study's conclusions under a glib headline like "Want a Job? Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture." Oversimplifications like these, combined with initiatives in the U.K. and China to do away with non-lucrative majors completely, make me want to throw up. Not only do they laugh in the face of learning for learning's sake and put pressure on kids to choose their careers too early, they also reinforce cultural biases about what professions deserve to make money.

We get it, Georgetown, English majors are poor. But instead of accepting that people like teachers and journalists get paid shitty salaries, how about re-evaluating why we give those professions the shaft? How about encouraging new grads to be creative about what they do with their majors? College students should certainly know what they're getting into when they choose to study, say, philosophy or German, especially with tuition costs and student loan interest rates rising. But those figures should be coupled with a few important caveats.

A future of unhappy robots is pretty bleak. It's well-documented that a good salary alone can't make you happy. That's doubly true if the job isn't suited to your talents. Doing away with arts or humanities, whether in kindergarten or college, gives credence to those horrible parents in movies who crow that "singing doesn't put food on the table" before their kid turns out to be Lauryn Hill. Steering young people into career paths they'll hate is the oldest parent faux pas in the book, and often leads to a midlife career change—or crisis.

The broader the major, the more well-rounded the student. Arts, humanities, or social science majors may not have crystal-clear career paths ahead of them, but that's only because they have so many paths to choose from. There are plenty of sociology or political science majors who turn into bankers or lawyers or doctors or entrepreneurs. I was an American studies major, which meant I was able to follow the best professors whose classes cross-listed with my department. More important than learning facts and history, I learned how to write and think critically, an invaluable skill that employers, wisely, appear to be seeking out.

There's no getting around the fact that certain majors are more pre-professional than others. Math and science majors provide more direct training for specific jobs, so it's easy to make generalizations about what kind of salaries a graduate should expect to earn. On the other hand, some of these tech jobs are contingent on the next big thing and may be outdated within a few years. Many professions of the future haven't even been invented yet. Super-specialized, esoteric majors like 19th-century Russian lit may indeed pose problems in the current job market. But vague majors often teach someone how to absorb information, rather than just memorize facts.

Where you go to school counts far more than what you major in. I'm well aware that my American studies degree from Wesleyan University got me a lot further than one from a community college would have. An elite university comes with connections and prestige. That opens a whole 'nother can of inequality worms, but not taking this truism into account when presenting these statistics is disingenuous. A better way to gauge one's future earning power would be to track the relative starting salaries of individual institutions, not just of the majors they offer.

If we shun certain majors, their fields—and the people who work in them—will continue to be undervalued. Telling kids that writers or social workers make no money perpetuates the harmful stereotype that science and math-related careers deserve to be better paid. This is undeniably gendered—STEM careers are still dominated by men. By diminishing (and feminizing) certain discliplines, we're preserving the status quo—and worse, discouraging the youngest generation from emotionally investing in making these jobs better.

Finally, let's be real: Lots of educated 20-somethings are in jobs that require no degree at all. Forty-seven percent of people under 25 work in food and retail, a growing sector of our economy in which the workforce is increasingly educated. The problem isn't that jobs for poetry majors make less money; it's that there are too few jobs in general. Sooner or later, we're going to have to accept that not everyone going to college will be using their degree to get a job. In a way, this is depressing. But in another, it's utopian. Maybe if we started honoring service jobs—along with manual labor and other professions that don't require degrees—with a living wage and some cultural respect, higher education would be less about preparing for the workforce and more about, I don't know, learning.

Photo via the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr.

via David Leavitt / Twitter

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