When Is It Too Early to Specialize in College, and Why Do It?

I’m teaching two sections of first-year English composition this term and conducted an autobiographical/ethnographic experiment as my first assignment in my first class meeting. I simply asked each student to answer the question “How did you end up at Ohio State?” and now await short papers answering that question. I did get a variety of answers in class discussion. First, financial considerations factored in every student’s decision. Some even had point-blank conversations with their parents about what was and was not affordable. Three students came on athletic scholarships, three more came because they were not admitted to their home state institutions and Ohio State’s tuition made it an affordable alternative, a couple were the public equivalent of legacies—their parents had attended OSU, so, while not exactly coerced, they were expected to be Buckeyes too. What most surprised me, thought, was that in a class of 23, 12—more than half—came in planning to major in engineering.

And they weren’t just guessing. As I asked follow-up questions during that first meeting, it became clear that they had done detailed homework. Almost all of them were state residents, and so qualified for lower, in-state tuition. They had done the research and realized that, for the value, Ohio State had the best engineering program in the state. They’d also all researched the job prospects for engineers while they were in high school, and clearly knew that majoring in engineering would yield them good chances for employment at a good salary as soon as they graduated.

I wonder if I’m alone, as someone who began college in 1976, as thinking of this phenomenon as remarkable. It turns out I’m not, and the phenomenon, based on my limited conversation is very recent. One example: a couple of days after the surprising class meeting, I spoke with a former Ph.D. student, still currently in the program at OSU, who began college in 2002. I explained my class’s response and asked him if he approached college in such a ruthlessly pragmatic way. He responded with an amused disbelief similar to my own.

I attribute this recent trend to two interrelated factors: the increasing cost of college, and thus the pressure on students to think of their education as a return on an investment, and the incessant public and political rhetoric pushing STEM subjects in higher education (at the expense of the traditional curriculum). Jared Moffat, an undergraduate at Brown University, recently blogged about this subject for the Huffington Post and captured the rationale with exceptional clarity. His general context was the worry among some Brown alumni and students that Brown’s new president, Christina Paxon, will continue the policy of her successor, Ruth Simmons, and shift Brown’s curriculum away from the traditional liberal arts toward more technological subjects.

Moffat, a philosophy major, is certainly not unbiased, but he neatly captures what I believe to be the thinking of my students: “Amid a struggling economy and a ballooning student debt crisis, parents and students are re-evaluating the merits of a college education. Is it a wise investment? There is no simple answer, because the return on investment depends on what you study. The increasing pressure on students to secure a high-paying position after graduation has led many to pursue a degree in a field where job prospects are more promising, such as computer science, economics, engineering, biology, chemistry, and so on. In other words, the economy discourages students from concentrating in subjects where employment opportunities are more scarce—namely, the humanities. When President Barack Obama says the United States needs education to stay competitive in the global economy, he is not suggesting that students should take more Gender Studies courses.”

What concerns me most about this trend is the speed at which it is unfolding. If it never entered the deliberations of my former grad student, class of ’06, but was thoroughly absorbed by at more than half of my freshmen, class of ’16, while they were in high school deliberating their college choices, then I worry that the U.S. college curricula is in the process of changing at at even faster pace than I’d previously predicted.

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