Way back in the tyranny of Bush the Minor, I read a funny article in one of the news magazines, while waiting for a haircut. This was in the early days of his administration when the accounting scandals hit and the tech bubble burst tanked the economy. The liberal media was sure it was all the result of the gods being angry over Bush getting elected over Gore, so they filled their pages with horror stories about the economy. The story was a tale of woe about Ivy League grads unable to find work.
The one example I always remember was about a girl who had graduated from Harvard and was unable to find a job she deserved. Instead she was reduced to waiting tables (gasp!) and doing temp work in offices. The story went through her struggles to get interviews and her process of considering alternative career options. Finally she landed a job as a social worker for the city. The piece wrapped up with a quick summary of her story and it was revealed that she had majored in folklore at Harvard.
Whenever the topic of college majors comes up, I always think of that story. I’ve made a hobby of rooting around in the course catalogs of liberal arts colleges, looking for bizarre classes and majors. Nothing so far has topped the Harvard Folklore and Mythology degree. Our colleges are full of lunatics doing useless work, of course, but there is some effort to dress it up as legitimate academic work. There’s no way to dress up a major in folklore. Exactly no one has ever said in an emergency, “We need a folklorist!”
Anyway, this post on Greg Cochran’s site brought all that to mind. His post links to this cool graphic put together by NPR displaying the majors over time, relative to other majors and college graduates as a whole. It’s one of those things that could be done with charts or traditional graphs, but it is a lot more fun hovering over that thing. I learned that there is such a thing as a fitness major, which sounds a lot like gym, but my bet is it has lots of “queering” and race stuff to it. Pointless majors tend to go hard for the crazy.
Another interesting tidbit is the fact that zoology has just about disappeared as a college major. It looks like the annual numbers are in the hundreds now. Maybe colleges have re-branded it as something cooler. Biology has not had a ton of growth over the last few decades either, so maybe not. It does suggest that young people no longer have an interest in the natural world. My guess is the number of young people experiencing the natural world is at an all-time low. Kids are not into hunting, fishing or farming.
The volume of business majors is the eye opener. Greg asked in his post what readers thought was the least valuable degree. That’s a loaded question, but objectively business has to be on the list. Most of the course work is stuff you never need in the business world. Accounting courses are useful, but few kids retain any of it. The math courses should be helpful, but many business majors never take more than the minimum of math required for graduation. The SAT scores for business majors explain the popularity.
The truth is, college is a major waste of time and money for most of the students. Only 59% of students graduate from college in six years. Some fraction of the rest go back and get their credential, but by that point it has lost its market value. This assumes it has a market value. A Ivy League diploma still carries weight. A Stanford degree opens secret doors that most don’t know exist, but in the case of the elite, it is not the degree so much as the connections. Mixing with tomorrow’s rulers is the real value of the degree.
Outside of STEM fields, it is hard to judge the value of a college degree. The constant refrain from the college industrial complex is that college graduates earn eleventy billion more in their lifetime, compared to non-graduates. There a lot of fun with numbers in those studies. People with “some college” tend to earn about the same as people with four-year degrees, suggesting IQ is the real issue here. If you are bright enough to get into college, you are as bright as the people who get out of college with a degree.
The only way to measure the value of a diploma is on a case by case situation. If your goal is to be an engineer, then you need the paper. On the other hand, if you are walking out of college with $80,000 in debt, by the time you pay off the loans, the real cost is 30% more in interest and opportunity cost. Your lifetime earnings probably justify that initial investment. On the other hand, if your goal is to be a medieval folklorist, you’re probably better off playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft.
All that aside, the college rackets are another example of how social trust has declined in America over the generations. There’s little doubt now that colleges prey on the angst of middle-class families. The declining value of a college diploma corresponds with the skyrocketing cost of getting it. It is a bust out, the sort of thing predators do to people they view as strangers. Just as the college campus is a collection of grifters pretending to be colleagues and academics, America is a land of strangers pretending to be citizens.