Ray’s anxiety was understandable. As rising tuition and mounting student debt makes prospective income a bigger part of choosing a major, humanities disciplines such as philosophy and history are under attack in favor of such fields as engineering and business, which are more likely to lead to jobs and salaries that justify the cost of four-year college education.
“Higher education has really pressed this idea that if you have a college education, you’ll make more,” says Ray, an economist by training. That’s true, he says, but the strategy of emphasizing the financial value of degrees has backfired on the academy. “Shame on us. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the next step is, which major pays the most.”
That question is currently on the minds of many high school seniors and their parents, as they await college admissions decisions and the students consider what classes to take. And it’s driving a debate over the very purpose of higher education—whether universities and colleges exist to teach people general knowledge, or to train them for specific jobs.
This is no longer just an academic conversation. Only 8 percent of students now major in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967.
Worried that enrollment in these subjects will continue to slip, university officials say it could lead entire departments to disappear. And they contend that what would be lost is exactly what employers say they really need: the kind of educations that teach students how to think, innovate, communicate, work in teams, and solve problems.