I’m not saying we should do this!

by on November 24, 2011 at 1:38 am in Education | Permalink

Yet neither is it crazy:

China’s Ministry of Education announced this week plans to phase out majors producing unemployable graduates, according to state-run media Xinhua. The government will soon start evaluating college majors by their employment rates, downsizing or cutting those studies in which less than 60% of graduates fail for two consecutive years to find work.

The move is meant to solve a problem that has surfaced as the number of China’s university educated have jumped to 8,930 people per every 100,000 in 2010, up nearly 150% from 2000, according to China’s 2010 Census. The surge of college grads, while an accomplishment for the country, has contributed to an overflow of workers whose skillsets don’t match with the needs of the export-led, manufacturing-based economy.

One of the targeted sectors might be biology, whose majors are not currently finding good jobs.  But is that the right decision for the future of China?  Here is yet another problem with the plan:

An op-ed in the Beijing News criticizes the approach for a different reason, saying that it will only spur false reporting of employment rates from schools that are looking for greater autonomy to produce more diversified, higher qualified students.

By the way:

What if the U.S. government were to adopt China’s approach? According to the most recent U.S. census data, among the first majors to go: psychology, U.S. history and military technologies.

For the pointer I thank Samuel Oehler.

1 Silas Barta November 24, 2011 at 2:02 am

Military technology majors as unemployable? Someone is doing it really, really wrong.

2 gwern November 24, 2011 at 10:41 am

Dan mentions it’s the smallest of majors, so this suggests to me it’s one of the ‘fake’ majors like an undergraduate library science degree.

(Also, small sample size increases variance yadda yadda.)

3 Rick November 24, 2011 at 2:22 am

If you don’t believe in government intrusion, it sounds pretty crazy to me. This is a fine example of an otherwise freedom and choice-loving person being dazzled by the China miracle. A program like this is only “not crazy” in the totally mixed up crazy land of China.

And anyway, if we’re going that route, we should just take it one step further. In China, students have much less choice about their major. Usually, students apply for a number of different majors either before or after being accepted by a particular university. The most desirable departments then pick the top students, and so on down the line. This results in many students in majors they do not want. Moreover, in most Chinese universities, only the top 10% of students are allowed to change their major.

So, if your gao kao scores get you into a top school, but you’re not a top student in that school, you may be stuck with a major you do not want for the full four years. A fine reward for working so hard in high school. This is compounded by the fact that you do not often have a final say about where you go to university – i.e. you write down a list before your gao kao based on what you think your score will be, and then when the results come in, you are allocated to the appropriate university based on those scores. So, at the end of the day, if you are good student who wants to be an engineer, but you also know that you are not good enough to get into the engineering program at Tsinghua, you do not even have the option of picking a slightly less prestigious school and going for engineering there, unless you really take a risk in listing out your preferred universities before taking the gao kao.

4 Andrew' November 24, 2011 at 4:21 am

“If you don’t believe in government intrusion, it sounds pretty crazy to me.”

China is almost assuredly doing it wrong and can get away with it because they are starting out so bad. But education is an intrusion from the get-go, and especially so in China as you say. They are not doing it the way it would be done here because it appears they are simply using the student as guinea pig and solving the problem they created on the student’s back. But, how different is that really from us?

This is like the financial de-regulation argument to me. They control money and credit and people claim the market is too laissez-faire when they give out too may freebies and inflation.

5 Jay November 24, 2011 at 7:43 am

“If you don’t believe in government intrusion, it sounds pretty crazy to me.”

So it won’t sound crazy to anyone that supports government mandated (and run) health insurance.

6 el November 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm

The last 2 paragraphs of Rick’s post here are key – if you’re not aware of the vast differences in the US and Chinese systems of college entrance & placement, any objections will be based on wrong assumptions.

In the Chinese system, if you overestimate your own abilities (or just have a bad test), you may not make it into any university at all. Your only options then are probably expensive community-ish colleges (which my cousin ended up doing; he ended up getting a job at a Chinese bank, but his parents are rich & well-connected – definitely not an option for the average citizen) or waiting a year to retake the test or trying to make a go of it in the workplace with only a high school degree. Let’s not forget that you could’ve already sabotaged yourself by screwing up your junior high and high school entrance exams too!

7 James November 24, 2011 at 2:50 am

“Yet neither is it crazy…” What? Of course this is completely crazy! Education is not free anywhere in the world (before anyone responds, opportunity cost), so individuals are making trade-offs between studying and getting a better paid job/improving their knowledge/increasing their utility and the alternative of not studying. Future job prospects following the degree forms part of this decision making process.

If Tyler was competent enough to make a decision about what was best for him (BEc, PhD, working in academia), then how is it not crazy that to assume other people are not competent to make a comparable decision for themselves?

I appreciate you are not saying this should be done. However, I would have hoped for a little bit more of a repulsion at the idea that somehow the ‘government’ knows what is best.

(PS I wont enter into a discussion about the a) assumptions of inelastic demand for graduates in different sectors, b) the assumption graduates wont be able to switch to alternate ‘sectors’ c) the assumption markets dont work and respond with price/salary change)

8 Miraj Patel November 24, 2011 at 2:52 am

In my experience (I am currently a senior biology major), a greater proportion of biology majors have longer-term education plans and more plan to go to professional school (medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, etc.) than in other majors. And it isn’t as a response to the job market, but instead often a pre-planned thing (I am one of them), which is why the employment rate of biology majors might actually matter less and the gains from majoring in bio (which will certainly help with some of those professional programs more than other majors) is perhaps underrated in this sort of calculation.

9 Andrew' November 24, 2011 at 4:39 am

To me, it is simply the fact that you can’t monetize biology easily. A little knowledge of auto mechanics can be monetized. A crap ton of knowledge of biology and 50 cents gets you a cup of coffee.

10 David Wright November 24, 2011 at 6:24 am

Don’t get too hung up on the specific majores cited; the interesting argument is about the principal. In most non-US countries with which I am familiar, subjects like medicide and dentistry are just normal college majors, not seperate schools you first have to have another college degree to apply for.

11 Andrew' November 24, 2011 at 8:15 am

And in the US, biology is essentially pre-med.

12 CBBB November 24, 2011 at 11:44 am

Medicine and Dentistry should be undergraduate majors, I don’t understand why it’s necessary to get an entire first degree and THEN go to Medical School (except for the fact that the Medical Guild wants to put big limits on competition).
Contrary to Tyler’s assertion, HUGE numbers of students major in Biology and related subjects in the hope of becoming doctors. Only a tiny minority end up making it into medical school, the rest are left with utterly useless degrees in the supposed highly-marketable sciences.

13 Josh Sq November 24, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Because colleges can make way more money by keeping you there for ten years, duh!

14 Richard November 26, 2011 at 2:04 am

Indeed. One of the trends we’re seeing in the medical field are people (American or otherwise) going to medical school in Europe, Canada, or the Philippines for cheap and returning to the US for residency and employment. This reaps them the best of both worlds: low educational debt and high salary. It’s a form of geographic arbitrage that will eventually cause the system to collapse. Either other countries will stop subsidizing medical education or the US will lower wages.

15 Marian Kechlibar November 26, 2011 at 9:21 am

Or the US medical schools will successfully lobby the Congress to forbid foreign-studied people from providing healthcare in the US, unless they pass an exam worth approximately USD 100 000 at one of the US medical schools, of course.

16 Tomasz Wegrzanowski November 24, 2011 at 3:42 am

The idea makes some sense, but small sample sizes make this exercise stupid.

17 Andrew' November 24, 2011 at 4:16 am

Or just stop artificially weeding out passionate STEM students who can’t quite hack the weeding out process. And my answer to people who say they aren’t passionate enough, don’t you think it’s possible that a department operating on a weed out regime would do their best to inoculate passion?

18 NAME REDACTED November 24, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Or make BA programs for the STEM majors who can’t cut it in a full BS field.

19 Andrew' November 25, 2011 at 6:50 am

Or just inflate the grades to keep pace with grade inflation outside STEM. You can call it The GPA Illusion. Target Nominal GPA.

20 Expatoverthere November 24, 2011 at 6:12 am

Maybe I’m missing something, but where is the link to this article?

21 David Wright November 24, 2011 at 6:20 am

It’s not necessary or smart to dictate what majors school can or can’t have. But to the extent that state universities heavily subsidize students’ educations, it seems reasonable that they vary the subsidy according to their idea of the usefulness of the education they are subsidizing. I hope it’s always possible to study history, and I hope that charitable foundations would offer to subsidize poor but passionate kids who want to study history, but I think it reasonable that the state offer a larger subsidy to an engineering major than it does to a history major.

22 Andrew' November 24, 2011 at 8:18 am

I don’t even like the subsidy idea. You are still mucking with the part of the market you are relying on to determine usefulness. How ’bout just a sheet of paper on the door showing the percentage of seats finding employment and average salary?

23 Leslie Katz November 24, 2011 at 6:34 am

“less than 60% of graduates fail for two consecutive years to find work.”

Something wrong there.

Is it “at least 60%”?

24 HH November 24, 2011 at 11:49 am

I saw the same thing. I assume your interpretation is right.

25 Becky Hargrove November 24, 2011 at 6:36 am

Then there is the possibility that such areas of study return to the free markets of choice, where they are studied because of their intrinsic value instead of all the 20th century baggage that became attached to them. Let’s at least hope, as David said. Long live the local bookstores and libraries of all kinds, the local knowledge holders (and sharers) and freely chosen knowledge at any age, even though they seem to be going by the wayside in the present.

26 Jan November 24, 2011 at 6:44 am

I would assume that the vast majority of higher ed in China is government-sponsored. We couldn’t do this here, even if we wanted to. Schools are either private or run by states, not on the federal level. You could do something by limiting government-backed loans for certain tracks of study, but I think private lenders would be willing to fill that void.

27 Sergey Kurdakov November 24, 2011 at 7:12 am

You would be surprised, but no less than president of Russia argues for cutting ‘unemployable’ studies.

Not only he tries to cut education in law and other popular disciplines, he favors to cut number of universities and put people to ‘professional education schools’ ( as I say to prove that one is capable to ouperform a robot for $250 month salary (this is a number for all current robot expenses per month – but prices of robots are in decline ( ~30-40% per decade )).

It would be great if Tyler gave us his view on this idea of Russian president.

Hint – there is indigenous theory of specifically useful approach – ‘industrialization’ for economic growth and because few top people ever seen how robots work ( or CAD/CAM/CAE+CNC machines work together ) under ‘industrialization’ they mean a forceful submitting people to stand behind half century old machines .

28 Emily November 24, 2011 at 7:39 am

Began with a discussion of China, Russia finished. I much more interested in the future U.S.

29 dearieme November 24, 2011 at 7:40 am

“subjects like medicide and dentistry are just normal college majors” – yes, though of course they are longer courses, and typically much harder to get into than most. In the UK, medicine is the second hardest degree subject to get into. The hardest is vet medicine.

30 DK November 24, 2011 at 12:56 pm

It’s more or less the same in US. Getting into a Vet School is more competitive than Med (there are a lot fewer Vet schools). I always found it curious because vets’ income is considerably lower, roughly $100K a year.

31 NAME REDACTED November 24, 2011 at 7:03 pm

1) People like animals
2) Veterinary medicine is much, much less regulated, so of course profits are smaller.

32 cournot November 24, 2011 at 7:51 am

This is not about efficiency, this is about political stability. China doesn’t want their educated elites to be disgruntled. No OWS or hippies. So they want to make sure that college bound students can enjoy monopoly rents. By restricting majors they will make sure that those who do get a degree will at least have jobs or otherwise earn more than would emerge in an open market.

While this is somewhat akin to the AMA holding back medical places in the US, it is more like the hukou system where people are constrained from moving into the big cities. This gives city dwellers rents which are harder to erode, hence providing an elite that will support the current system of reform.

Even if more efficient, an elite student-citizenry that is unemployed will make for more unrest and more demonstrations. Better to keep a BA or BS as a carrot to be dangled in front of people while not raising the expectations of marginal students.

33 rjs November 24, 2011 at 7:53 am

the state should pay for education since its obvious kids are educated for the purposes of the state…


34 Andrew' November 24, 2011 at 8:19 am

Alas, the state has no money…

35 Dan November 24, 2011 at 8:22 am

Your source is misreporting the census data, at least as psychology majors are concerned.

“Clinical psychology” has the worst unemployment rate, at 19.5%, but it’s also one of the least popular majors, #168 of 173. If you search for all psychology majors (link below), you’ll note that the “psychology” major itself is the fifth most popular and has only a 6.1% unemployment, which is comparable to the rest of the top 20 majors by popularity.


As for “military technologies,” I think we’re just suffering from small sample size bias. It ranks 173 out of 173 in popularity, after all. While there’s no direct evidence that the sample size is too small to get meaningful data out of that, looking at #172, “school student counseling,” suggests something’s awry. Full employment — 0.0% unemployed — but the lowest salaries across the board. Seems like an odd equilibrium, no?

36 joshua November 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm

So some of the highest unemployed majors are some of the least popular? It’s almost like the market sorta works or something…

37 NAME REDACTED November 24, 2011 at 7:04 pm


38 zrzzz November 24, 2011 at 8:23 am

I’ve heard rhetoric lately that seems to suggest the country’s high unemployment is caused by people’s poor choice of college major. Self-entitled OWS protesters with puppetry degrees do nothing to diminish this, but I find it hard to believe the entire world economy is in the doldrums because some kid in Pennsylvania decides to become a liberal arts major.

If we’re talking about cost to society of particular majors… seems a few years ago, lot of economists were arguing that debt-backed derivatives were a perfectly viable financial instrument. Many reasonable people were smugly laughed down for questioning them. History brings us example after example of devastating positions taken by economists. While we’re at it, maybe we could do with fewer of those?

39 CBBB November 24, 2011 at 11:58 am

No no nothing to see there! Pay no attention to the failed predictions of high-flying economists – it’s ALL because students aren’t majoring in the “right” subjects – whatever those are.

40 somethingblue November 24, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Yes, from AY 2003/04 to 2007/08, puppetry departments at the major universities nearly doubled in size—with predictable consequences for the broader economy. Felt industry lobbyists have kept this from being as widely known as it should be.

41 Ryan November 24, 2011 at 9:00 am

The more we narrow the spectrum of available college majors, the more we eliminate comparative advantage. I am really tired of all these North American economics professors extolling the virtues of China’s most totalitarian policies. Be careful what you wish for.

42 Josh November 24, 2011 at 9:17 am

Yes, it is crazy. To accept the government centrally planning what people should study is crazy. To accept government central planning of anything is crazy.

43 Matthew C. November 24, 2011 at 11:59 am

Especially the money supply and interest rate. . .

44 Claudia Sahm November 24, 2011 at 9:51 am

“I’m not saying we should do this!”…seems like there has been a lot electronic ink spilled on MR on this topic for awhile. Can someone remind me what “we should do” (according to this blog) other than allow society to be more unequal to scare people into “profitable” (hard ethic work) majors?

PS I’d like to see the OPs put on a puppet show. Every profession is challenging to some people. Making children and their parents smile has huge social benefits that might even outweigh the social benefits of a I banker or an economist like me.

45 Ryan November 24, 2011 at 10:23 am

A major problem is that there is no real data. Raw employment / compensation is highly endogenous. Signaling is mixed up in actual gain of value. The causal effect of different degrees probably varies by where you are institutionally and personally. The value of a degree where you’re better suited vs more generically useful is also complicated. Projecting income trajectories adds another layer of difficulty. 18 year olds are not actually more resourceful that the entire economics profession, though it might be close.

46 thehova83 November 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

Definitely!!!! Have Tyler and Alex even attempted to address those issues. Their posts on college majors are simply shallow.

47 Andrew' November 25, 2011 at 8:49 am

Do we need precision? The post that showed that STEM and pre-med had the highest rates by far of switching majors is pretty clear evidence. In my experience, the jobs are far more accommodating than the education that is (or should be) an artificial model for the jobs.

Here is what we really do. On the job market, we have good jobs in T&E if not S&M, good pay, solid job security all other things being equal, not to mention the need to plug the offshoring. On the front end, we have PSA ad campaigns to get kids and girls excited about how cool STEM is, we send teams of undergrads and grads into primary and secondary schools to talk about how cool STEM is. Then, once we’ve convinced these kids to have STEM dreams, we welcome them to the university and make it a nightmare.

48 Lord November 24, 2011 at 10:20 am

Who needs computer administration management and security anyway?

49 TomStarke November 24, 2011 at 10:25 am

Is the mismatch between graduates and opportunities a market failure? Do students have realistic market info when they decide their majors, or are they being influenced by peer pressure, professors, and outdated info? Perhaps regulation isn’t the answer. How can the market be more effective here? Should college be priced on a value basis? a cost total basis? Based on value an engineering, computer programming, or agricultural degree might cost more, the lifetime earnings potential is greater. On a total cost basis, a psychology degree is very expensive for society as it provides welfare to the recipient and often retraining as he or she must subsequently earn a marketable skill. Are professors, with their ego-investment in their disciplines, really the right people to decide what’s in the best interests of the students? How would this be different if students had to have a job commitment from an employer before chosing a major?

50 TallDave November 24, 2011 at 11:30 am

Gov’t distortion. The gov’t is happy to issue grants and guarantee loans irrespective of the usefulness of a degree. That’s also a driving force behind the wild inflation in tution.

51 CBBB November 24, 2011 at 2:26 pm

But all degrees are useless – even the STEM ones unless you graduated in the top 5-10% of your class. The problem of graduate unemployment comes back to the fundemental issue of there being way too few jobs, including in the glorified STEM fields.

52 NAME REDACTED November 24, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Untrue, getting a chemical engineering degree is great even if you are a mediocre student.

53 CBBB November 24, 2011 at 7:12 pm

I doubt that. And even if that’s true is everyone supposed to pour into Chemical Engineering programs. Notice how it goes from “more people need to get higher education” to “more people need to major in STEM” to now “well everyone should just major in Chemical Engineering”. Many schools (even those with Engineering departments) don’t even offer Chemical Engineering as a major.

54 TallDave November 25, 2011 at 5:52 am

I don’t know why you keep repeating that claim, it isn’t getting any more true.

55 Marian Kechlibar November 26, 2011 at 9:23 am

Blah. Stop projecting your personal employment failure onto the world.

Would you trust an electrical appliance designed by someone who didn’t study electrical engineering?

56 Lord November 25, 2011 at 12:38 am

Individuals pursuing their own decisions are now govt distortion. I guess we have met the enemy.

57 TallDave November 25, 2011 at 5:54 am

Individuals receiving gov’t subsidies to pursue their own decisions is distortion, yes.

58 thehova83 November 24, 2011 at 10:59 am

Cowen’s posts on STEM’s somehow manager to become more and more absurd.

59 TallDave November 24, 2011 at 11:28 am

China’s Ministry of Education announced this week plans to phase out majors producing unemployable graduates, according to state-run media Xinhua.

The Communists are now market-oriented than the capitalists.

60 KOH November 24, 2011 at 11:33 am

Accepting governmental central planning on college majors is absolutely ridiculous. I would suggest releasing employment data and job prospects to a higher degree of transparency, but no way is the government stepping in to decide what people SHOULDN’T study.

61 axa November 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm

kudos for that!!!

i’ll also remember from my college time that every semester I signed an agreement/waiver that I acknowledged that using campus network to download illegal mp3s, child porn or hacking was considered and abuse and it was my entire responsability on what I did with my internet connection. A waiver is too much, but it is needed a cultural change that emphasizes that the graduate (AKA adult) is responsible for the decisions taken while in college including career choice, course taken, etc. Don’t blame parents, college profesors, goverment, creditors, neither the “system” just a be an adult!!!

62 TallDave November 25, 2011 at 5:59 am

That’s the problem with having the government pay for things — you subsidize bad decisions, so you get more of them, then the gov’t needs to act coercively to encourage better decisions…

63 CBBB November 24, 2011 at 11:40 am

Well if you got rid of every unmarketable major that would leave almost no programs open at Universities. You would also have to kick out STEM students who have less then an A- average as they will also be unemployable.

64 Eat the Babies! November 24, 2011 at 11:54 am

This makes me almost apoplectic with anger. I work in a non-technical world. Majors mattered very little for hardly anyone I know. What mattered is that they had been thru college and gotten the broad skill set of critical thinking that college is meant to give you. Just what they studied was completely unimportant.

In fact, I’d go a step further and suggest that majors that have a historical problem with employment isn’t the major’s fault but the people who tend to want to study that major. The major you choose does say something about you. Quite a lot, really, as it is a very big decision, but for lots and lots of jobs, all that matters is having gone thru college.

65 axa November 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm

how much is “lots and lots of jobs”? Maybe you’re not fully aware that the people that designs planes & cars, take care of your teeth, makes buildings and bridges, fixes a broken arm, all those nerds that create new computer processors and networks, they DO use the knowledge they got on college. Sure, real world job experience is a must, but a biologist is not going to calculate the forces and stresses in a bridge, ever. I don’t know the percentage of people that really applies knowledge from college courses in their jobs either. Anyone, is there a metric for that?

I apologize for rudeness, but assuming that all you need is “critical thinking” is a simplistic view of the world.

66 D November 24, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Stipulate that we need, say, three times as many engineers as doctors, nurses and dentists combined. What percentage of total jobs is that?

I was talking with my business partner (aerospace major, mba) about this. He thinks the most important thing he did in college was not learn higher math, but get real-world experience in a co-op program. Perhaps more majors need to offer that.

I run a software company but we have plenty of non-technical work to get done. I’d gladly hire a gender studies student for the right price.

67 axa November 25, 2011 at 7:12 pm

3:1 engineers – doctors ratio? just wondering how you came up with that number =)

68 Patricia Mathews November 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm

The point of studying U.S. History isn’t to get a high-paying job in U.S. History. It’s to know where we came from and what America stands for and why. Every citizen should know this stuff, and to know it, one needs teachers. That’s the point of the U.S. History major. So eliminating it would be folly. Cutting it way back, now, might be a smart idea.

Except – many humanities majors are preparing for law school. I would seriously like tomorrow’s lawyers to have a strong background in history, ethics, etc, before they get into the legal technicalities, or else they become like blind technicians.

69 Kaiser Soze November 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Given the garbage taught as history in my children’s school textbooks (with their deemphasis of the Founding Fathers and overemphasis on slavery, female pioneers in every minor area, oppression of the working classes, and general political correctness) I think schools would be a lot better off without 99% of the history taught in the last 20 years.

Better to pull older history teachers out of retirement and ship the current historians to countries they don’t despise and where they’ll be happy.

70 CBBB November 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Yeah that’s all garbage – ONLY the Founding Fathers ought to be taught – history is just a bunch of wealthy white male landowners sitting around on their plantations. Anyone who teaches any broader history must be some kind of America hater. Clown.

71 D November 24, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Do you seriously think they’re not learning enough about Abraham Lincoln because of too much emphasis on Harriet Tubman?

72 Micha Elyi November 26, 2011 at 2:59 am


73 Josh S November 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm

What’s the point of taking on $40K in debt to study history?

74 The Anonymouse November 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm

It seems to me that clinical psych probably has low popularity because it is signaling a commitment to go on to further, more expensive studies to become an actual psychologist, while in my experience general psych as an undergrad major is another sociology: kids who don’t have any firm plans for a career and like to wax wise about their fellows’ foibles at beer-soaked parties.

75 Urstoff November 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm

That’s just going to push all of those psych majors into getting education or sociology degrees and be just as unemployable. It’s more likely the person, not the major, that is unemployable.

76 Ted Craig November 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs on why taking a calligraphy class was the most important educational event in his life.

77 NAME REDACTED November 24, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Imo: they should just go ahead and make law a 4 or 5 year undergraduate degree, instead of a 3 year graduate degree.

78 JSC7 November 24, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Why would we assume that certain majors produce worse outcomes and not that poor students tend to flock to certain majors?

79 CBBB November 24, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Since Education is almost entirely about signalling the major that attracts poor students becomes a poor major.

80 Seth C November 25, 2011 at 1:12 am

It seems to me that if a major produces too many graduates, it would be better to try to reduce the number of students choosing it, not get rid of it entirely. There is such thing as a niche market.

Also, the major with high unemployment is clinical psychology, not general psychology (a mere 6% unemployed.) Notably, all of the most popular majors have fairly low unemployment, indicating that students are better economic actors than a lot of people give them credit for.

81 Meghan November 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I know this is a blog about economics, but seriously, are college majors ONLY worth the economic gain the individual and society can get from them? Look, I’m not defending an expensive puppetry degree as a wise career choice, but if we’re saying that heavily regulating majors is not “crazy,” you’re verging into crazy-town yourself.
I just can’t understand the idea that majors are only worth it when they’re immediately economically productive, when so many people do things that aren’t related to their majors. I majored in political science in college (just graduated in May), and it took me 6 months to find a job (just got one this week.) Would I have found a job earlier if I had studied economics or electrical engineering or computer science or something else that’s a “better” economic choice? Maybe. But I would not necessarily be as good at my chosen career, nor would I be happy, contributing to society in the way that I would like or have gotten the type of education I wanted. The problem with high unemployment is not merely that all us young college kids are studying the wrong things, and we’re so foolish as to think that U.S. History majors will totally get us a job, it’s that the economy sucks, and unless you have an A-average in one of those “desirable” STEM fields, then it’s going to be hard to find a job. Graduating from a not-so-great public or private university, even with a degree in something “useful” may make it harder to find an economically renumerative job than for someone graduating from a better, nationally-known university with a less “useful” major. Major choice isn’t everything- people go to grad school, get work/internship experience in other areas, have more than one major, change fields, etc…

Although I know this blog worships at the altar of economic productivity, who wants to live in a society where we don’t have poetry, painting, history, sociology and acting majors? The arts, humanities, social sciences may not be the most economically productive fields, but they are part of what makes any society great. Yes, we shouldn’t have 20% of college grads studying the fine arts, but acting as if it’s not “crazy” to cut fields where people aren’t immediately employed is completely ridiculous. If unemployment rates and growing the economy becomes a driver to which other things fall prey, we have lost sight of what actually matters, to what our society can and should aspire to.

82 The Anti-Gnostic November 25, 2011 at 12:40 pm

‘Fine arts degrees’ are not the sine qua non of great art.

83 Tim November 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm

And as anyone can tell you, petroleum engineering or computer science degrees are not the sine qua non of great engineering. But oddly enough, people do seem to feel the need to learn their craft.

84 Marian Kechlibar November 26, 2011 at 9:42 am

As a co-owner of a software company, I haven’t seen a good (not to mention “great”) programmer younger than 50 who didn’t specialize in either software engineering or maths yet. So far, I have observed work of about 100 programmers.

Mostly, the amateurs are unacquainted with algorithms and data structures – thus constantly reinventing the wheel, because they are ignorant about the fact that the appropriate problem was already solved by someone else.

Look at the list of contributors to, say, Linux kernel, and you’ll see that the contributors are usually software engineers to boot, not self-educated students-of-something-else.

The older guys over 50 are a different story, because back in their time there were no specialized schools for computer studies. Nevertheless, during their practical life, they had to absorb pretty much the same knowledge set as a standard graduate of CS.

85 David Wright November 27, 2011 at 2:26 am

My own annecdotal two cents has some points of disagreement and some points of disagreement. I am a lead programmer at a large software firm, who has interviewed and interacted with over 100 programmers. I am under 40 and my own background is not CS, but theoretical elementary particle physics, up through the postdoc level.

I agree that a good background in data structures and algorithms is essential. Don’t bother interviewing if you don’t know what arrays, stacks, queues, and hashtables are, and you need to explain the big-O scaling for their standard operations as well as your own algorithms, too. This is a great dividing line between programmer who are likely to be mostly competent and those who are likely to re-invent the wheel, badly.

I disagree that a CS degree is a decent proxy for such skills. There are now plently of “practice-oriented” CS programs that don’t cover this stuff, at least as far as I can tell from interviewing their graduates. And there are plenty of self-taught programmers who, like me, learned this stuff on their own, because they recognized that it was a key programming skill.

When I interview, I want to people who have college degrees (or have a very good story why not), but I don’t pay attention to what the degrees are in. And whether or not they have CS degrees, I ask questions designed to probe for algorithm and data structure knowledge; it doesn’t take much time.

86 Marian Kechlibar November 26, 2011 at 9:37 am

I find it odd how people who are all for subsidizing art colleges (and later, art production) by the state ignore the fact that most of the graduates are rather mediocre artists.

On the other hand, most of the really great pieces of art in the history of Western civilization were produced by people without proper credentials (eh). The American obsession with credentials is rather unhealthy.

I would gladly say that I percieve the correlation as inverse: the more “state support” of art, the less actually valuable art produced, and the more junk. Of course, it may all be correlated to the concurrent almost-eradication of syphilis, which is said to greatly enhance artistic productivity in the third stadium 🙂

“if we’re saying that heavily regulating majors is not “crazy,” you’re verging into crazy-town yourself”

This kind of aggressive personal POV is not very welcome here. Plus, look around the developed world and you’ll see that other countries have very different educational systems and yet they achieve similar, if not better results, than the good old USA. If it wasn’t for the subsequent import of the PhDs, the USA would already have lost the competitive advantage.

“that majors are only worth”

Study has a price, both in time and in money. You can’t buy back the time anymore, and the price in money is currently too high in the USA – basically turning you into a debt slave for years to come. If you do not intend to do what you actually studied, I would argue that you could spend the years better than learning something you’ll forget after a year of unuse, and getting yourself into a lifelong debt.

BTW When it comes to the STEM majors, you could perhaps try your luck outside the USA. From what I know, Germany, Switzerland or the Scandinavian countries are always looking for STEM majors all over the world (as they haven’t outsourced all of their industrial production to China yet), and you definitely do not have to be A- to get a job there. I know many counter-examples.

87 novica November 30, 2011 at 10:37 am

Macedonia is doing the same thing: http://brkajrabota.mk/vesti/makedonija/11559-se-ukinuvaat-smerovi-na-fakultetite

From the article (google translate):

Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, Ministry of Education and Employment Agency conducted a needs analysis of labor market in terms of enrollment quotas faculty.

Some curricula are deficient and need to increase the interest of students to enroll. For the curricula that are sufficient we will react differently, to reduce quotas, programs to be put in standby or turn completely abolished.

This as a recommendation to be sent to universities.

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