Making College ‘Relevant’
New York Times
By KATE ZERNIKE
Published: December 29, 2009
THOMAS COLLEGE, a liberal arts school in Maine, advertises itself as Home of the
Guaranteed Job! Students who can’t find work in their fields within six months of graduation can
come back to take classes free, or have the college pay their student loans for a year.
The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, is eliminating its philosophy major, while Michigan
State University is doing away with American studies and classics, after years of declining
enrollments in those majors.
And in a class called “The English Major in the Workplace,” at the University of Texas, Austin,
students read “Death of a Salesman” but also learn to network, write a résumé and come off well
in an interview.
Even before they arrive on campus, students — and their parents — are increasingly focused on
what comes after college. What’s the return on investment, especially as the cost of that
investment keeps rising? How will that major translate into a job?
The pressure on institutions to answer those questions is prompting changes from the admissions
office to the career center. But even as they rush to prove their relevance, colleges and
universities worry that students are specializing too early, that they are so focused on picking the
perfect major that they don’t allow time for self-discovery, much less late blooming.
“The phrase drives me crazy — ‘What are you going to do with your degree?’ — but I see
increasing concerns about that,” says Katharine Brooks, director of the liberal arts career center
at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path
From Chaos to Career.” “Particularly as money gets tighter, people are going to demand more
accountability from majors and departments.”
Consider the change captured in the annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles,
of more than 400,000 incoming freshmen. In 1971, 37 percent responded that it was essential or
very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about
“developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78
percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.
The shift in attitudes is reflected in a shifting curriculum. Nationally, business has been the most
popular major for the last 15 years. Campuses also report a boom in public health fields, and
many institutions are building up environmental science and just about anything prefixed with
“bio.” Reflecting the new economic and global realities, they are adding or expanding majors in
Chinese and Arabic. The University of Michigan has seen a 38 percent increase in students
enrolling in Asian language courses since 2002, while French has dropped by 5 percent.