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A Career-Aligned Major Isn’t Enough

Updated: May 14, 2022

Credit: (reprint)

Contrary to what many undergraduates think, a bachelor’s degree in a high demand field is not a golden ticket to career success.

As my "Higher Ed Gamma" partner in crime, Michael Rutter has observed, it is simply not true that vocationally aligned bachelor’s degrees, even in the sciences, will get graduates hired in their field of study.

To wit … "If anything, the numbers point to an oversupply of skills, says Hal Salzman, a sociologist at Rutgers University. In a 2018 paper, he and colleagues showed that only about 60 to 70 percent of U.S. computing and engineering graduates land jobs in STEM, dropping to between 10 and 50 percent for those studying life sciences, physical sciences, and math. A study from the Office for National Statistics published last year recorded similar evidence in the U.K. that a shortage of skills is not the issue. The data showed that 16 percent of workers in 2017 were overeducated for their jobs, which rose to 31 percent for graduates." ("Why reskilling won’t always guarantee you a new job," Edd Gent, BBC.)

Moreover, many graduates, including those from STEM institutions, end up in careers that have no direct relationship to their major. Such graduates are attractive to employers because of their broader abilities like quantitative skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving knack, not, in most cases, just for their specific knowledge of a field.

For most of those hired, additional vital training will take place on the job.

The implications should be obvious:

1. Students are wrong if they think that they need a career-aligned major.

Just as there’s no royal road to geometry, there are few direct routes to career success apart from nursing. As many millennials have discovered to their dismay, even an engineering or a computer science bachelor’s degree offers no guarantee of a job. Undergraduates need to understand that for many graduates, a bachelor’s degree isn’t the endpoint; rather, it’s a step along a path.

2. Instead of looking for a program that screams relevance, students need undergraduate programs that are demanding in terms of writing, critical thinking, quantitative skills, presentation skills, and experience in working as a team member.

In most cases, a liberal arts education, supplemented with specific transferable skills, represents the best preparation for long-term success.

Sure, it is helpful to acquire foundational and technical knowledge as well as training in areas like Excel and project management, and research methods. But it’s precisely because a B.A. or a B.S. isn’t the end of the line, majors matter far less than the skills and range of knowledge that students acquire and are able to demonstrate through projects and activities.

3. The students who do best in the rapidly expanding number of online 12- to 24-month master’s programs or in MOOCs are those with a solid four-year liberal arts background.

Online learning, we now know all too well, isn’t for everyone. Not surprisingly, those students most likely to succeed online are those with strong time management, organizational, planning, and metacognitive skills and a well-developed capacity for self-regulation. These are the very skills that a demanding liberal arts education furnishes.

When higher ed imagines its post-COVID-19 future, it typically foresees more hybrid programs, shorter degree times, expanded online learning, and a greater focus on finding students jobs. But those predictions largely omit the heart of the actual academic experience: the content, assignments, and assessment found in individual courses.

It’s time for faculty and administrators to be blunt: postgraduation success, more than ever, requires a demanding curriculum that includes extensive writing, facility with data and statistics, and extensive opportunities for collaboration and critical thinking.

What the pandemic should have taught us is that we need to double down on teaching -- not teaching defined simply as instruction or content transmission, but as mentoring, scaffolding, intervening, engaging in substantive interaction, and providing constructive feedback. It also entails attending to students’ needs, confusions and interests and responding appropriately.

There’s a phrase some teaching and learning experts use to describe this approach to pedagogy. “Deep teaching” differs from more conventional approaches in that it’s more intentional, self-aware, evidence-informed, empathetic and learner- and outcomes-focused.

Teaching, in this more profound sense, is extraordinarily time-consuming and exhausting. It is a process that begins by articulating a course’s learning objectives, not defined narrowly as a body of knowledge and a skill set or even in terms of research methods and modes of analysis and interpretation. Rather, it encompasses the mind-sets, dispositions, and habits of mind associated with a particular discipline.

Next, deep teaching treats pedagogy as a design and engineering problem. It asks, in effect, how might I best:

  • Bring my students from novice to a more expert status?

  • Help the students master the appropriate skills, knowledge, and methodological and analytical approaches?

  • Monitor student engagement and learning and determine whether the students have achieved my objectives?

  • Scaffold and support the students’ learning, encourage critical reflection, and provide useful comments and suggestions?

At most universities, the incentive structure discourages the level of commitment that deep teaching requires. But there are colleges that embrace deep teaching as an ideal. They’re called liberal arts colleges.

For the past century, the more selective liberal arts colleges were, first and foremost, prep schools for graduate and professional education. Institutions like Oberlin and Swarthmore sent a grossly disproportionate share of graduates to succeed in doctoral programs, med schools, law schools, and advanced training in the arts or the caring professions, like social work.

Recognizing the fact that a B.A. or B.S. wasn’t a job ticket or a terminal degree, liberal arts college faculty didn't worry about requirements because the whole educational experience was developmental and holistic, emphasizing writing, discussion, logical reasoning, and critical self-reflection.

Nor did these colleges institute career-oriented programs like business, communication, or engineering because their graduates would enter those fields later after acquiring some real-world experience and pursuing advanced education.

Sadly, as my colleague Michael Rutter observes, the prohibitive cost of an elite liberal arts college education has made it harder and harder to advocate on such an education's behalf.

But even if only a minuscule proportion of undergraduates will attend a liberal arts college, we who teach elsewhere need to reassert the value of something like a liberal arts education: a broad, rigorous, and demanding education that involves extensive writing, close reading, research, discussion, problem-solving and critical reasoning.

We have a duty to make it far clearer that a high-quality higher education isn’t vocational or technical training.

Above all, we need to reaffirm the value of what a liberal arts college education traditionally offered: preparation for a lifetime of learning and living.

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