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At FiveThirtyEight, Michelle Cheng peruses some data from the US Department of Education and finds that while Americans who attend elite universities often major in more “academic” fields such as the arts, humanities, and social sciences, students at less prestigious institutions are much more likely to pursue career-focused courses of study that qualify them directly for particular jobs:
The most popular fields of study among students at the most selective schools are the social sciences, with 19 percent of degrees awarded in majors such as political science, economics and sociology. The next two most popular groups of majors are the biological and biomedical sciences and engineering. At less selective schools, the most common fields of study are related to business (the Education Department calls this category “business, management, marketing and related support services”), with 19 percent of degrees awarded in those majors. The next most popular group is “health professions and related programs.”
Career-focused majors — such as business, education and journalism — are more prevalent at less selective schools than at top-tier schools. Education ranks as the fifth most popular major at less selective schools but is the 21st most popular major at the most selective schools. Other vocation-specific majors such as law enforcement are also more popular at less selective schools. In total, more than half of students at less selective schools major in career-focused subjects; at elite schools, less than a quarter of students do so.
This career focus among attendees of less selective schools, Cheng explains, reflects the fact that their students tend to come from lower-income backgrounds: These students are highly motivated to see a financial payoff quickly after finishing their degrees, because they and their families have made bigger financial sacrifices to obtain them. At elite colleges, where students tend to be wealthier, the pressure to land a good job right out of college is less intense. Also, graduates of top-tier schools are much more likely to go on to graduate school, a choice that plays a greater role than their undergraduate major in defining their career:
Although software engineers and other technical employees are essential to his business, “I’m still hiring more humanities majors than STEM grads, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” Michael Litt, co-founder of the video marketing startup Vidyard, writes at Fast Company:
At my company, as at many tech companies, developers only make up 15–25% of our workforce. … Think about the other roles that deal with developing and marketing tech products and services: Sales teams need to understand human relationships. Marketing teams have to understand what gets people excited and why. Internally, our HR teams need to know how to build a community and culture so the company can continue to thrive. The nuts and bolts of software development are just one small part of any successful tech company. It would actually be foolish to limit my hiring only to people with tech backgrounds.
Even within strictly technical roles—including the product and engineering positions that form the basis of STEM know-how—a humanities foundation can be invaluable. Some of our software, UI, and UX designers come from a fine-arts backgrounds, for instance. Yes, coding skills are important there, but so is an understanding of usability—in other words, the uniquely human ability to draw upon experience to design an elegant solution that real people will actually find helpful.
As more and more organizations wake up to the fact that they need workers with liberal arts educations, employment rates and starting salaries are on the rise among graduates with degrees in the arts and humanities, Nikki Waller reported at the Wall Street Journal last week:
Class of 2015 graduates from those disciplines are employed at higher rates than their cohorts in the class of 2014, and starting salaries rose significantly, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ annual first-destination survey of recent graduates in the workforce. Degree holders in area studies—majors like Latin American Studies and Gender Studies—logged the largest gains in full-time employment and pay, with average starting salaries rising 26% to $43,524 for the class of 2015, compared with the previous year’s graduates. Language studies posted the second-highest salary gains.
Though area studies majors comprise less than 1% of all graduates in the survey, the pay numbers show employers are seeking hires with communication skills and comfort in multicultural environments, said Edwin Koc, NACE’s director of research, public policy and legislative affairs. … Behind the numbers is a growing desire among employers for hires with strong communication skills, said Mr. Koc. After complaining that new hires’ soft skills are not up to par, “employers may be reconsidering how they’re approaching recruiting college graduates, and may not be so focused on hiring a particular major,” he said.
The bottom line here is that soft skills are increasingly in demand and also in short supply. Undeniably valuable in today’s work environment, these skills are generally harder to teach and cannot always be easily assessed or identified during the interview process. Sourcing for more talent with liberal arts backgrounds is one way to soft skills, but there are also some other ways that they can ensure they are hiring for and building soft skills among their workforce, such as:
FiveThirtyEight’s Andrew Flowers explores some new research suggesting that soft skills have overtaken technical skills as a key differentiator of talent in the labor market:
“The days of only plugging away at a spreadsheet are over,” David Deming, an associate professor of economics at Harvard, told me. Deming is the author of a new working paper, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” which shows how today’s high-skill, high-paying jobs — like consultants and managers — increasingly require interpersonal skills.
It’s not that hard skills are suddenly less desirable. Training in mathematics, computer science and other STEM fields (what Deming would count as “high cognitive skills”) is still a great investment; that “plugging away at a spreadsheet” is still valuable. “High-cognitive-skills workers still earn more,” Deming said, “but social skills increasingly are a complement to cognitive skills.” He argues that having strong cognitive skills is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a high-paying job. …
It’s a truism among scientists, businesspeople, and overbearing parents alike that a liberal arts education isn’t worth much—especially these days, when the overall value of a college degree is being called into question. Nonetheless, Yoni Appelbaum at the Atlantic finds that this bit of conventional wisdom may not be entirely wise, as many undergraduates who study business (one of America’s most popular majors) are graduating “without having made the gains in writing or critical-thinking skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time”:
A 2014 study of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test—administered to some 13,000 undergraduates as they entered and exited university—found that business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and engineering. The authors then adjusted their results to account for the academic abilities of students entering these majors—and found that business and education majors still showed substantially lower gains in writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking by the time they’d graduated.
Those are the weaknesses that a liberal-arts education can address. …