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As More Attend College, Majors Become More Career-Focused

A popular article by Verlyn Klinkenborg last week in The New York Times Sunday Review lamented the decline of English majors at top colleges and universities. Mr. Klinkenborg is worried about the “technical narrowness” of some college programs and the “rush to make education pay off”– which, he writes, “presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring.”

I am sympathetic to certain parts of Mr. Klinkenborg’s hypothesis: for instance, the potential value of writing skills even for students who major in scientific or technical fields, and the risks that specialization can pose to young minds that are still in their formative stages.

But Mr. Klinkenborg also neglects an important fact: more American students are attending college than ever before. He is correct to say that the distribution of majors has become more career-focused, but these degrees may be going to students who would not have gone to college at all in prior generations.

In 2011, according to the federal government’s Digest of Education Statistics, about 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded by American colleges, roughly double the 840,000 degrees in 1971. The number of Americans of college age has not increased nearly so rapidly. We can approximate the number of Americans who would be at the typical age to receive a bachelor’s degree by evaluating the number of 21-year-olds in the United States population. In 2011, there were about 4.6 million 21-year-olds in the United States, compared with 3.7 million in 1971 — only about a 25 percent increase instead of double.

A related calculation is the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per 21-year-old in the United States. In 1971, there were 26.7 bachelor’s degrees awarded for every 100 21-year-olds in the United States. By 2011, that figure had increased to 43.4 degrees, about a 60 percent increase.

The relative decline of majors like English is modest when accounting for the increased propensity of Americans to go to college. In fact, the number of new degrees in English is fairly similar to what it has been for most of the last 20 years as a share of the college-age population.

In 2011, 3.1 percent of new bachelor’s degrees were in English language or literature. That figure is down from 4.1 percent 10 years ago, 4.7 percent 20 years ago, and 7.6 percent 40 years ago, in 1971.

But as a proportion of the college-age population, the decline is much less distinct. In 2011, 1.1 out of every 100 21-year-olds graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, down only incrementally from 1.2 in 2001 and 1.3 in 1991. And the percentage of English majors as a share of the population is actually higher than it was in 1981, when only 0.7 out of every 100 21-year-olds received a degree in English.

Something of the same story holds for other traditional college majors, including many fields that are grouped under the heading of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. Measured as a share of all bachelor’s degrees, for example, the number of mathematics and statistics degrees has declined slightly — to 1.0 percent in 2011 from 1.3 percent in 1991. However, it has held steady at about 0.4 percent of the 21-year-old population.

The number of engineering graduates, likewise, has decreased slightly as a share of all college degrees. But it has increased slightly relative to the college-age population.

The social sciences abide by a similar pattern. The number of social science majors is lower by any measure since the early 1970s. But whereas the number of social-science graduates is flat since the 1980s as a proportion of degree recipients, it has increased considerably relative to the population of young Americans.

Which majors have experienced the largest increase in graduates? As I mentioned, they tend to be those associated with relatively specific post-college careers. For instance, the number of graduates in what the government calls “health professions and related programs” has roughly doubled since 1991 as a share of the college-age population. The students in this category are not necessarily bound to become doctors. (They enter college with only average SAT scores.) But the heading includes a range of majors, like hospital administration and nursing, that offer strong career prospects as the health care field adds jobs.

Undergraduate majors in business, which like the health professions tend to attract students with average SAT scores, have also become much more popular over the last four decades.

It would have been virtually unheard of 40 years ago for a student to receive a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field. But these have now become fairly common majors, as more employers in these domains prefer — or even require — college diplomas.

Some employers in the visual and performing arts, which were once thought of as crafts or trades that required hands-on experience, might also now prefer or demand college degrees, and the number of bachelor’s degrees in these fields has been on a long-term increase.

In short, college attendance has become more of a norm for a broader range of students, including those that might pursue a wide array of careers, like nursing or criminal justice, that are ordinarily associated with the middle class.

Mr. Klinkenborg’s experience is at highly selective universities, including Harvard and Yale, where he has taught nonfiction writing. In those environments, he might have some room for concern about the fate of English majors. Since 1996, the average critical reading SAT score for prospective English majors has declined to 580 from 605, among the sharpest declines in any college discipline. And the unemployment rate among English majors was 6.9 percent in 2011 – considerably higher than 5.3 percent for bachelor’s degree recipients as a whole.

But schools like Harvard and Yale are becoming ever less representative of the whole as more young Americans attend college.

Perhaps the more important moral and policy question is what academic requirements should be in place, whether in English composition or probability and statistics, among students across all majors – including those who go to college with a specific career in mind.

I hesitate to generalize too much from my own college experience, at the University of Chicago, but it is a school that emphasizes a broad and general course of study among all its undergraduates. My strategy was to choose a major – economics – that I expected to offer strong career prospects, but then to take as few courses in that field as required, diversifying my curriculum instead.

It won’t be the right approach for every student or every university. But perhaps there can be a balance between recognizing two concepts: on the one hand, that college has become more of a necessity for more careers and a wider array of Americans; on the other hand, Americans are now more likely than before to change professions throughout their working lives. Perhaps we should at once encourage or require college students to take coursework in English – and tell them to be wary about majoring in it.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.