Major Uncertainty

Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School, has offered a warning about the irrational exuberance surrounding current discussions of college majors.[1]  He urges people to look at higher education as an economic commodity.[2]  What is the best way for “education consumers” to spend tuition dollars?[3]  Currently (Fall 2013), public discourse[4] encourages parents and students to focus on “practical” majors that will mesh with the labor needs of American employers.  Colleges have responded by consulting the oracles about the likely paths to future prosperity—for themselves as much as for their customers.  (Generally this means the reports of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, rather than the more traditional sheep entrails.)   Any form of Business, Nursing and anything else related to health care, and majors centering on Leisure (voluntary as with Personal Training or involuntary as with Criminology) all are growth fields at colleges.[5]

Cappelli warns that “Today’s Jobs Aren’t Necessarily Tomorrow’s.”  For one thing, technology itself is an enormously disruptive force, both eliminating jobs in recently robust fields and creating jobs in unanticipated fields.  It isn’t possible to tell now what new technologies will exist in six years (the common time to a BA).  There just isn’t an app for that.

For another thing, predicting that some particular type of job is going to be in demand and paying high wages in the future merely guarantees a flood of candidates into preparation for that field today.  They will all emerge from the funnel at the same time.  In all likelihood there will be an excess of candidates, wages will fall, and many of them will not get jobs in the field for which they prepared and will have to adapt in search of some other job.

The tarantula on the angel food cake[6] here is that the currently favored degree-programs may leave students intellectually more disabled or inadaptable for the work that will emerge than will the now-disfavored liberal arts degrees.  Highly specialized knowledge is difficult to transfer to other fields.  (You try finding work doing something else if you’re a 59 year-old, whitemale with a Ph.D. in History.)   Highly-specialized fields that have to answer to accrediting agencies tend to run up the number of courses that they require.  This crowds out liberal arts courses that would enhance basic skills in analysis and communication.  As with any revolution, Thermidor is coming.  Oh, wait!  That’s a historical reference to patterns in human behavior.  Never mind.

[1] Peter Cappelli, “Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire, WSJ, 11 November 2013.


[2] But who are the “consumers”?  Are they the parents footing the bill or are they the children who actually choose a major, take the courses, and “possess” the BA or BS upon graduation?  There may be an analogy here to the tax-free status of health-care plans provided by many employers.


[3] The very idea of viewing it this way drives liberal arts faculty wild.  They see what they are offering in an entirely different light.


[4] You know, the same sort of discourse before Pearl Harboring Iraq in 2003 and selling mortgaged-backed securities before 2007.  “Old echo chambers never die, they just move on to new subjects.”  On the other hand, Russ Feingold is still a senator and John Paulson is still a billionaire.  From this I derive the lesson that thinking for yourself is not always punished, even in America.


[5] I haven’t run across programs for Cocktail Waitresses or Personal Escorts—yet.


[6] Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely (1940).  I forget the page number.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s