Academics In the Modern Age: Trading Education for Practicality

There’s a character in AMC’s brilliant series Mad Men, Paul Kinsey, who exemplifies the definition of a college education in a time past. A former Princeton student with purported desires to be knowledgeable and worldly—in addition to being almost absurdly pretentious—Kinsey represents what once was the definition of an academic. In other words, he represents one who has not only the time and ability, but the internal longing to improve his life and worldview. Now, academics, and especially undergraduates, are seen more as practical and investors of their time into bettering their future. In a time when millennials make up about 40 percent of the U.S.’s unemployed, the nations youngest members of the workforce must strive for any advantage possible to secure their employment. No longer can college education be seen solely as a broadening of one’s horizons, as an opportunity for self-growth. The prevailing sentiment has now become that college students are merely taking on debt and using their four years to protect against an ever-rising tide of joblessness.

As Bill Gates noted last year, recent trends in automation and the rising growth of technological innovation has threatened the available job market even further than before. This has lead to an increase in the number of available areas of study with more “practical” applications—engineering, sciences, and technology—and yet the enrollment numbers have not matched this trend thus far. According to an article published in Science Education Policy in 2010, although the number of students who have received bachelor's degrees within the last 40 years has nearly tripled, the proportion of STEM students among them has actually decreased since that time. In fact, it seems that while students desire undergraduate education in ever increasing numbers—most likely as a result of the ever increasing unavailability of the job market for the unskilled—the areas of study for students receiving these degrees haven’t followed the same trend. Perhaps disconcertingly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2018, retirement and the demand for skilled labor will open over 3 million STEM related jobs throughout the United States.

Schools across America have begun to change to fit the new economic atmosphere. Public universities, perhaps America’s major source of college education, have experienced significant budget cuts in the humanities, accompanied with more widespread political support. In 2013, North Carolina governor Patrick McCroy outlined his plan to change the state funding for education that was less focused on “butts in seats, but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” His sentiment echoes a common conservative sentiment across the nation that sees college less as an opportunity for personal growth and more as a utilitarian opportunity to secure future employment.

But this trend is hardly new. In fact, the most majorly significant drop in humanities enrollments occurred in the 1970’s, which saw a decline of nearly 10% in humanities enrollments around the country. Despite this, the recent decline has sparked much more debate, likely due to the changing economic climate that has surrounded it.

Why is this the case? What is the cause of this recent change?

Well, for the most part, this change can be attributed to women. Even more underrepresented and underemployed than men, women have largely been flocking to social science fields, not necessarily to the STEM fields. This trend can largely be attributed to more interest in pre-professional degrees and the larger, more practical movement across the country. However, it seems that employment and pay differentials between men and women have not been following the same trend.

What does this mean for the modern woman? Perhaps that more “practical” degrees aren’t the answer. In fact, most employers and colleges themselves maintain that the actual degree received matters less than the specific skills and abilities acquired by the student during their time in college. Instead of making themselves more “practical” as applicants, the rush to join the larger, more represented fields can actually lead many away from skills and experiences that would differentiate them, and thus give an advantage. Certainly, a greater desire for education and a realistic mindset about the workforce can be advantageous, but when these qualities come at the expense of education and acquiring skills, nobody comes out ahead.