This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

“Is It Worth It to Go to College?” Part X: Majors that lead to unemployment

It has become fashionable of late to disparage college education and college-educated. For awhile, the prevailing societal ideal was to give everyone, regardless of financial status, socio-economic background, aptitude or intelligence a chance to get a college degree, and thereby an entrance into the heretofore exclusive world of well-paid jobs and intellectually and socially rewarding careers. However, decades of pushing millions of people through college with little regard to whether it was right for them resulted in college education losing its patina of exclusivity, and with that, the power to open doors and fill money coffers. Mickey Mouse degrees proliferated and standards for obtaining a college degree, some college degree fell so low that employers could no longer regard it as proof of skills and competence. At the same time, skyrocketing demand, coupled with inflation, drove the prices up, so that in the end, college degrees became prohibitively expensive while being, at best, only the first step towards establishing an academic or professional career.

These days, we are living through a period of reaction, when pundits have gone to the opposite extreme, furnishing “proof” upon “proof” that one should not go to college, except for a STEM degree. The latest installment in this assault on college education, especially liberal arts education, comes from CBS News, which has published a list of 25 college “majors” with the highest unemployment rates. This masterpiece of intellectual dishonesty is decorated with a stock photo depicting a ditzy-looking young woman standing in front of a lovely Impressionist-style still life, which she presumably has just painted, because she is an idiot. Yes, had she read this piece before wasting her life like this, she would have gone into … well, the list leaves little to choose from. I will say parenthetically, that I am thankful for all those underpaid and underemployed idiots like Shakespeare, Mozart and Michelangelo. Without such fools, we wouldn’t have a culture.

“In any event, here is the list:

College majors with the highest unemployment

1. Clinical psychology 19.5%
2. Miscellaneous fine arts 16.2%
3. United States history 15.1%
4. Library science 15.0%
5. (tie) Military technologies; educational psychology 10.9%
6. Architecture 10.6%
7. Industrial & organizational psychology 10.4%
8. Miscellaneous psychology 10.3%
9. Linguistics & comparative literature 10.2%
10. (tie) Visual & performing arts; engineering & industrial management 9.2%
11. Engineering & industrial management 9.2%
12. Social psychology 8.8%
13. International business 8.5%
14. Humanities 8.4%
15. General social sciences 8.2%
16. Commercial art & graphic design 8.1%
17. Studio art 8.0%
18. Pre-law & legal studies 7.9%
19. Materials engineering and materials science and composition & speech (tie) 7.7%
20. Liberal arts 7.6%
21. (tie) Fine arts and genetics 7.4%
22. Film video & photography arts and cosmetology services & culinary arts (tie) 7.3%
23. Philosophy & religious studies and neuroscience (tie) 7.2%
24. Biochemical sciences 7.1%
25. (tie) Journalism and sociology 7.0%”

Notice anything weird about this list?

It is the legendary British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who is credited with coining the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics”. This phrase is often invoked by people who reject evidence that disproves their views, and this is because the phrase itself can be misleading. Statistics are actually wonderful. They help illuminate complex issues, conserve resources and optimize planning in a wide variety of fields. Statistics become problematic, however, in the mouths of pundits, because pundits invariably invoke numbers out of context or distort what they mean. And that’s the rub — statistics are useless without context; they are not a shorthand for proving an extremist idea, and they do not obviate the need to explore nuance.

In the above list, four of the twenty-eight listed “majors” are various species of psychology. But, while the researchers were awfully specific with the various psychology subspecialties, they’ve also for some reason grouped dozens of disciplines, which run the gamut from foreign languages to art history under the nebulous rubric of “humanities”. (If there is a college that awards degrees in “humanities” or “science”, rest assured its graduates’ unemployment rate has little to do with market demand and a lot to do with this being a shitty college.)

Then, quite puzzlingly, unemployment is higher for “humanities” than for “liberal arts”. Why is that? Aren’t they pretty much the same thing? And aren’t these awfully broad categories, rather than actual fields of study?

Then you have “general social sciences”. What’s that? Does that include economics? I am not sure what to make of a category that would lump it together with social work, in this era of privatization and declining social services. How about history? And how is this category different from sociology, which is listed separately? Or are we back to the college that hands out bachelors’ degrees in “general social sciences” along with “humanities” and “liberal arts”?

Speaking of bachelor’s degrees: I note the author’s artful choice of language, referring to “majors” rather than “degrees”. This begs the question: Are these four-year colleges we are talking about? “Pre-law and legal studies” are not exactly university-level disciplines, and neither is “cosmetology services”. That is not a trivial question, since if for-profit vocational schools are allowed into this study and lumped together with universities, they obviously skew statistics for all those technical “majors” that supposedly lead to a high rate of unemployment. An “engineer” from DeVry and an enginner from an actual university are two very different things.

Timing and different fields’ specific requirements are also not addressed. When were these rates of unemployment measured? Six months after graduation? A year after? Two years? I am particularly curious about this when it comes to “majors” that require advanced degrees in order to enable someone to work in the field. Practicing as a psychologist requires at least a masters’ degree, but career options are limited without a full doctorate. Is unemployment for psychology majors measured after graduate school? Or is a graduate student considered “unemployed” for purposes of this study?

I really don’t know how to finish this post, except to say that I am appaulled. Maybe it’s a crafty test of aptitude? Like, if you take the article seriously, college is not for you?

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