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Opinion What happened to all those unemployable women’s studies majors?

One reason that state funding for higher ed has dwindled might be that many Americans don’t view college as a particularly high-value investment, for either students or their communities. Recent college grads are supposedly all unemployed or underemployed (though the data show otherwise) …

… and those supposedly awful career outcomes are perceived to be the students’ own faults. As you’ve surely heard, Kids These Days are all too busy hooking up and partying to study. Even when they do hit the books, it’s for classes in prototypically impractical/easy/frivolous/employer-repellent majors such as women’s studies, art history or basket-weaving.

At least that is the case according to my email inbox, and also Internet memes.

I spoke about some of these common (mis)perceptions of college life at a conference last week, which gave me an excuse to dig into recent data on college majors. It’s certainly true that college students could be making better choices about what to study, at least if they want to maximize their earnings and job opportunities; but has there actually been a rash of women’s studies and poetry majors?

In 2014-2015, approximately 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded.

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Of those:

  • Just 1,333 degrees were in women’s studies, the most common “useless major” bogeyman that grumpy readers write me about.
  • 7,782 degrees were in the broader category of “area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies,” which women’s studies falls under. This represents about 0.4 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.
  • 2,868 degrees were awarded in art history. In the broader category of any visual/performing arts field, there were 95,832 degrees, or about 5 percent of all degrees given.
  • 248 degrees were in in “English literature (British and Commonwealth),” the closest category to “12th-century English poetry.”
  • 45,847, or about 2 percent, were in the broader category of all English language and literature/letters.
  • No stats on basket-weaving per se, but 187 BAs were given in “fiber, textile and weaving arts.”

To be fair, these are just a few departments, in just one year.

Maybe if you look at the overall data, you’ll see a rush out of the practical departments our wiser elders chose to major in, and into broadly sillier categories such as (heaven forbid) the humanities. Here’s the composition of BAs awarded in 1970-1971 vs. 2013-2014:

As you can see, the biggest decrease was for education, presumably because many more careers besides teaching have opened up to women since the 1970s. And it is also true that the percent of all degrees awarded that were in natural sciences and mathematics — departments that could also be seen as relatively employer-friendly — has dipped slightly.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is funneling into the humanities. In fact, the share of degrees going to humanities majors (the category that “area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies” falls under) has dipped slightly over time, as has that for social and behavioral sciences.

The fields that gained, in percentage terms: computer science and engineering; business; and “other fields.” “Other fields” includes many professional or pre-professional disciplines, such as health professions, agriculture, communications, law enforcement, legal studies, military technologies and applied sciences, etc.

In other words, if anything, the increase in college-going has been linked with more explicitly career-oriented studies. So much for Kids These Days using college as an excuse to daydream and self-indulge for a few years.

My guess is that the relatively few students who study something our ornery elders deem “impractical,” such as women’s studies or art history, went to more elite schools, and so are more likely to have better networks and job opportunities regardless of major. Their employers may also be more likely to view the critical thinking, rhetorical and writing skills honed in many humanities and social-sciences courses as quite valuable in the workplace, too.

I would love to see more students — especially women and people of color — in STEM disciplines; many employers are looking for quantitative and technical skills and are willing to pay handsomely for them. And there is indeed a wide dispersion in outcomes depending on the subject that students major in. But the persistent narrative that millions of lazy “libtard” college kids are opting to study the least practical courses they can find, and are being justly punished by the labor market, doesn’t hold up.