College and Jobs: Are There Safe Bets?

That’s the topic of this morning’s Room for Debate forum at the New York Times website. It asks six contributors, “…in today’s economy, what should ambitious young people pursue? Which majors and careers have a reliable “return on investment?”

Click here for the full forum. Just to pull out a few responses…

Electronic circuit

Katie Bardaro, an economist with, stresses the high pay — both at entry-level and mid-career — for those in the STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. But recognizing that “not all college students have the interest or ability to major in a STEM field,” she suggests that those majoring in, oh, history should “take some analytically focused courses like economics or statistics. Many jobs that previously didn’t require analytic thought or data handling now do, and arming yourself with these skills is one way to get a leg up in the labor market.”

More and more I agree with the second recommendation — too many of our majors regard Bethel’s math requirement as something to get out of or fulfill with the least degree of challenge. At the same time, I’m convinced that history coursework is at least as effective as econ at developing analytical skills. While at the same time, it cultivates some other skills that econ isn’t exactly known for, but are regarded as vital by forum contributors Nick Sedlet and Elli Sharef of

Their chief concern is that students ought to “pick a career for which demand will increase as a result of technology, not one that will be replaced because of it.” Chiefly, that means avoiding a job that is “highly structured and repetitive,” and instead opting for one “that requires creativity, interpersonal skills and critical thinking – aspects that machines won’t be able to replace anytime soon – and that is not in an industry that is being diminished significantly by technology.” Examples from Sedlet and Sharef: law, medicine, investment banking, and consulting.

Finally, two educators at liberal arts colleges push back against the very questions being discussed. First, Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, president of Marlboro College in Vermont:

Ellen McCulloch-Lovell
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell – Marlboro College

Today’s students should not be chasing “return on investment.” They should be considering a different “R.O.I.,” over the longer term: return on the individual. That means a lifetime of skills, like learning how to learn, adapting to a changing economy and society, expressing oneself clearly, solving problems creatively, and acquiring the civic skills to contribute to our democracy.

Alluding to the White House’s College Scorecard (blogged about here not long ago), which promised to help students “get the most bang for their buck,” McCulloch-Lovell writes:

It’s time to refine what we mean by “value.” It’s time to ask students how well prepared they are to be the inquiring, analytical, vocal and engaged citizens our democratic system so desperately needs. Colleges and universities should be measured by how well we carry out the civic mission of higher education.

Then English professor William Pannapacker (Hope College) makes the most explicit argument for the value of the liberal arts. Not only does such an education yield the benefits McCulloch-Lovell described, but Pannapacker contends that it still does the best job of preparing students for a fast-changing economy in which they should “Assume that you will have many careers, and that you will need to find ways to adapt your talents to the world’s needs”:

William Pannapacker
William Pannapacker – Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University

When it comes to choosing a major, engage with things that you care about, that interest you and that will produce your strongest efforts. Your major must not be the path of least resistance or an excuse for narrowness. Don’t be the English major who says, “I’m scared of math and computers.” Don’t be a chemistry major who says, “I never read books.”

Become the kind of person who is interested in everything and can do anything.

I keep hearing the same thing from potential employers: “We love students with liberal-arts degrees. They are curious; they know how to ask good questions. They know how to conduct research. They are effective writers and speakers. And they learn quickly.”

At the same time, he doesn’t think that liberal arts college like Hope, Marlboro, and Bethel could simply continue with business as usual. He emphasizes the value of colleges emphasizing experiential education, research in which faculty and students collaborate, and, most of all, the digital humanities:

Simply put, that means we are producing history and music majors who are as good at working with technology as they are at developing research projects and performing on stage. They are prepared for graduate school, but they are equally prepared for the workplace, and they think like entrepreneurs who are used to bootstrapping.

Pannapacker also writes regularly at the Chronicle of Higher Education (now under his own name; formerly under the pseudonym “Thomas H. Benton”), where several of his columns have expanded on the value of digital humanities — e.g., this one from last month, in which he advises colleges, among other strategies, not to call it “digital humanities.”

One thought on “College and Jobs: Are There Safe Bets?

  1. As a current college student studying History and Business/Political Science, I will echo Katie Bardaro’s comments that humanities majors should “take some analytically focused courses like economics or statistics”. In part because my second major required them, I took Statistical Analysis and Economics last semester. Although they were initially a culture shock for this humanities student, I consider myself a stronger student for having taken them. Both classes gave me an entirely new set of frameworks through which to think about the world and have significantly improved my analytical skills, not to mention helped me to overcome my long-time dislike of mathematics. Both have also proved to be relevant in my primary major, History, and have been useful in my work with digital humanities in the university’s library. I’d strongly encourage any History major (or humanities student in general) to take such courses.

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