Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, Special Issue, 1108-111 4
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Where Have All the Good (or Any) Jobs Gone?
Student Responses to Short and Long
Term Career Options
David E. Kaun
Economics Departm ent, Univers ity of California, Santa Cruz, USA
Received August 21st, 2012; rev i se d S e p t e mber 20th, 2012; accepted October 2nd, 2012
A discrete decline in the effort of my students that paralleled the equally dramatic increase in unemploy-
ment and deteriorating job market beginning in mid-2008 provided the stimulus for this paper. Extensive
discussions with students in and out of class about what was motivating them led to a series of meetings
with a group of my very best students, discussions that provided the stimulus for this paper. From as early
as the 1970’s US college student effort and choice of major has been influenced significantly by changing
economic conditions and opportunities. For the most part, while study time has declined, the longer job
market term trend has been positive. This may no longer be the case, at least in the short term ahead. As it
turns out, student responses today to these sudden and dramatic changes vary in significant, and both ex-
pected and unexpected ways.
Keywords: Job Market; Choice of Majors
Not unlike the stock market plunge, a similar precipitous de-
cline in student performance first struck me in the winter of
2008. I was teaching two classes, one dealing with the eco-
nomics of the arts, the other focusing on the original work and
times of Smith, Marx and Keynes, as well as the contemporary
exponents of these three dominant paradigms. These were
classes that I’d been teaching at UC Santa Cruz for many years,
and while the readings and lectures change modestly over time,
these changes paled in comparison with those occurring on the
“other side of podium”, that is, student performance. In a
phrase, dramatically less in every respect, from class atten-
dance and participation to exam performance. Much like the
economic prophets of our time, I wasn’t at all prepared for this
dramatic performance plunge. I found the student work both
inexplicable and unacceptable, and did little to disguise my
frustration and displeasure. Indeed, as the quarter ended I was
left with a combination of frustration and perplexity, and little
if any understanding.
Spring quarter followed. I’ve been teaching introductory mi-
croeconomics for many years, with a strong and accepted pref-
erence for the spring quarter. Here, at least the freshman had
two quarters to begin to shed their high-school mode. Offered
every quarter, the class size in the spring ranges in the four
hundreds. Spring 2009 was the norm in size, but the virus that
had suddenly struck so many of my students in the winter, was
as viral as ever. I give three short exams during the first half of
this class, and as might be expected, student performance regu-
larly improves. For some students, the first exam after two
weeks comes before they’ve even purchased the text, much less
opened it. And there is the issue of examsmanship, just getting
used to the professors’ quirky exams. Both of these factors ebb,
and student performance on the three exams regularly im-
proves.1 “Regularly,” but not in early 2009. “What the hell is
going on?” I wondered. And an explanation was not far off.
It was Monday, the first day of the 6th week, mid-way
through the quarter. My class met at 12:30, and I was prepared
to discuss the miserable results on the third exam taken the
previous Friday. I had set an early morning meeting on an un-
related matter: 9 AM at a popular coffee house in downtown
Santa Cruz. I was early, and for the moment the only one in line.
A familiar face stood behind the counter. Instead of the usual
banter, the following conversation ensued:
“Hi, are you a student?”
“Where do you go to school?”
“San Jose State.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Are you guys way more flakey this year that in the past?”
Not sure I was prepared for this answer, but I did manage to
ask why.
She responded: “What’s the point? There are no jobs out
there…why bother with our studies.”
This answer, as unexpected as it was turned out to be im-
mensely significant in a number of ways. These included what I
had to say to the students later that day in discussing their ex-
ams, and ultimately to the writing of this essay. There are sev-
eral elements to the story which I’ll take in turn.
1For example, results for the three exams in the spring of 2008 were ini-
tially skewed to the right, then to the left, and the third exam was an as-
cending linear “curve” from left (low) to high. This was improvement in the
extreme, but the pattern was no different than previous classes, until 2009.
A Bit of Understanding, a Change in Plans, and
a Student E-Mail
As indicated, any understanding of the decline in student ef-
fort and performance was not part of my initial reaction, just
ill-disguised frustration and irritation. But that had changed
thanks to the morning coffee, and conversation. After returning
the exams and noting the dreary results I told the class of my
morning “revelation”. I simply hadnt put myself in their shoes
with respect to the seemingly bleak job market prospects that
had so suddenly and deeply impacted their lives and academic
performance. Understanding is not forgiving. But it gets you
into the ball park. However much I understood what was hap-
pening; there was no requirement for acceptance or agreement
with the loss of hope. I did the best I could to let the class know
that while I understood—if a bit belatedly—what was so visibly
impacting their performance, I didn’t agree with what they were
It was John Maynard Keynes (1923) who observed that “in
the long run we’re all dead, another way of explaining/ration-
alizing a focus on the short term”.2 Indeed, the job market may
well remain in the doldrums for more than a year or two, but
the working life of most all of my students will extend over
several decades. I did my best to make that point briefly, as I
wanted to offer something more tangible in an effort to change
what was going on in class at the moment. In addition to the
three exams already taken, there was a final in the class which
covered the second half material. For too many students, their
performance on the three exams literally precluded passing the
class.3 But there was half a quarter to go, a time when we used
the theory developed in the first half to explore a number of
interesting issues, ranging from poverty and discrimination to
the environment and international trade and globalization.
Don’t cry over spilt milk, aka “sunk cost” in economics is a
bit of wisdom worth preaching regardless of ideology. I told the
students that I would change the grading policy in the course; in
essence, regardless of how badly they had done on the three
exams, if they passed the final exam with a legitimate C
(minimum 70 percent), they would pass the class. To be honest,
I can’t really say if I noted any obvious change in the classroom
environment during the rest of the quarter, but among the over
400 students, 17 passed the class based on the final alone. This
is not an insignificant number, as approximately 80 students
wound up with grades lower than a C, thus not passing the class.
But in a real sense, this outcome was perhaps the least signifi-
cant of all that flowed from the early morning conversation.
In response to what I had said and done in class that morning,
I received an extended and extremely thoughtful e-mail from
one member of the class, a portion of which follows:
Professor K., … You have been mentioning that the grades
are the lowest of al l time in our cl ass, Micr oeconomics . While I
somewhat agree that this has something to do with the failing
job market, I feel there is another factor. I know there are some
seniors in your class, but the majority of the students are fresh-
men. These freshmen are removed from the job market…so
they don’t feel like it affects them.
…It seems like a lot has changed since I was a freshmen and
people are taking their classes less seriously, not realizing how
much it has to do with their career…
What I have noticed is that when people are asked why they
are doing so poorly, they will look for any excuse to take the
blame off themselves. That is why the failing job market is the
perfect opportunity to blame something else other than them-
selves. If anything, I feel the failing job market gives people
more of an incentive to do better. I have witnessed this with my
4th year peers; people are concerned with getting jobs, so there
has been a lot more competition to get the most experience and
the best grades. It doesn't make sense to say that since there are
no jobs, I'm not going to try; with an attitude like that, you're
going to fail at life.
I hope this all makes sense, just a rant that my house mates
and I have been discussing (one of which is a previous student
of yours)…
As indicated, this was one student’s response to what I had
been discussing in class. But it should be obvious that this was
a “discussion” worth having with the “entire” class, not in class,
but via e-mail. It was a trivial matter to send the above response
to the entire class, indicating that I welcomed any comments
they had, and would share them with the rest of the class. A
number of students responded to the comments of their class-
mate. There was little unanimity among these responses.4 A
wide variety of factors were offered by way of explanation,
excuse and denial including the following:
Upper division students looking down on freshman: fresh-
men in the class either denying such charges, or responding
adversely and unproductively to the criticism; freshmen feeling
generally disoriented, where even by spring quarter, it can be
hard to solidify good study skills and practices; students feeling
the negative mind set had already set in before entering college;
a feeling that all students do is learn for the test, regurgitate,
forget it and repeat, for every class; a problem that flows from
the dynamic of the Econ 1 class and many other classes that are
that large (over 400 students); and a general feeling of discour-
agement in coming from high school with a 4.2 top 10% of
class GPA and transitioning to a 2.0 in college
Not All Classes Are Alike
In a sense, the much broader student responses from which
the above comments came may be thought of as prologue to
what ultimately blossomed from the work of students in the
“other” class that spring quarter. This was a small 28 student
writing intensive seminar dealing with unions, discrimination
and immigration, as these issues were presented in major and
documentary films. In addition to a good bit of formal writing,
students wrote weekly film responses that became the basis for
small group discussions. The class has received rave reviews,
and for the past several years students were admitted by inter-
view only, with the expectation of honors level effort. The re-
sult has been a class of first rate students, and some who were
among the best I’ve had over several decades of teaching. I
raised the issues discussed above with several members of the
class, suggesting that we meet to discuss their own feelings
about the world they were living in and about to “enter”.
These discussions continued on a very informal basis over
the summer, and we set our first group meeting in the fall of
2008. We quickly came to a consensus regarding not only a
desire to continue the conversation, but to think about doing
2A Tract on Mon etary Reform (192 3) Ch. 3.
3I do not grade on a curve. Rather, 90 %, 80 % and 70% are the normal cut
off points for passing grades. In large classes, the students “curve” them-
selves. 4The full s et of responses are available from the author upon request.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1109
some serious writing on the topic. As was clear at the time (see
following sections), the issues we were confronting, as students
and faculty, were hardly unique to the Santa Cruz campus.
Rather, they were part of a substantial concern as expressed
regularly in the national media. What was equally obvious,
however, was that the discussion came from only one side of
the situation; essentially from academic administrators, from
University presidents to academic deans and admissions offi-
cers. The student’s voice was virtually absent. It was this latter
aspect that moved the group to want to not only talk about the
issues, but to write about them as well, from their own personal
It is the spirit of these spontaneous responses that are in a
sense the core of this paper.5 My initial concern regarding any
writing project dealing with “student” voices was the fact that
all of the students from the film/writing class were “econ” ma-
jors, and this “sample” would hardly be representative of what
was on the minds of today’s college students, more broadly
defined.6 And thus, given the wonderful academic and personal
qualities of this small group, it was an easy call for me to pro-
ceed with a fuller development of how the present, sudden,
dramatic and unanticipated deterioration in short term econom-
ics prospects had impacted student behavior and their attitudes
about the future.
Birth Date Is Destiny
For me, being born early in the last great depression, while
problematic for a time, turned out to be a real blessing. That is,
the generation born in the 1930’s came onto a booming job
market in the 1950’s and 60’s. This is particularly the case for
academics; the number of PhDs born in the 30’s was minuscule
in contrast to the flood of students entering college after WW II.
Indeed, today’s college students—most being born in the late
80’s—grew up in an economic environment of great promise,
as the discussion below makes clear. And even with the slower
growth during the early Bush years, there was little to dampen
future prospects for those entering college in the very early
years of the 21st century.
Google the expression “blind side” and you instantly find the
“The recent recession, with its wave of corporate cost-cutting,
blind-sided many lawyers”, or “the economic downturn blind-
sided many investors”.
Try Googling “blind side college students”: you get a ton of
sites, almost all referring the film, “Blind Side,” the popular
Sandra Bullock film which while dealing with a college age
youth, has nothing to do with our subject. And yet, in some
fundamental way, student s entering college between ’05 and ’08
have been blindsided every bit as much as our nation’s inves-
tors and lawyers, to say nothing of the vast majority of econo-
mists. How could college students have possibly known? Con-
ventional wisdom, as expressed in the nation’s media portrayed
was presenting such a rosy scenario, as the following sampling
“Job Market for College Grads Strongest Since 2000” (Mon-
ster TRAK, 2005)
“…according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [bright]
prospects are expected to continue of college graduates, espe-
cially for those who prepare for careers with lots of job open-
ings” (Crosby, & Moncraz, 2006: p. 27).
“Job prospects good for college grads in US. The hiring
frenzy for graduation college students during the late 1990s has
not returned, but it’s getting close, analysts say” (Peter, 2007).
“Class of 2008 Steps into Good Job Market” Your chance of
having a job at graduation—maybe even the perfect entry-level
job—are great (Jobweb, 2008, emphasis added).
Over this three year period, when today’s students were
about to or were entering college, how could they see clouds
much less the serious storms that arrived suddenly in late 2008?
They couldn’t, and thus when the economy sunk dramatically,
the impact across the nation’s colleges and universities was
equally sudden and deep.7
As indicated in footnote 7, Lisa Kahn provided what in ret-
rospect was an “early” notice of the job market woes soon to hit
the young (and old alike) in a deep and sudden way. There was
very little if any notice of the impending collapse from the main
stream media. As a result, it was the class of 2009 that wound
up in a world they had never imagined.8 A world where their
outlook for the future had become as depressing as the nation’s
economy. The media which only a few short months earlier was
painting a bright scenario just as suddenly searched on its pallet
for darker tones.
Writing for the Employment Policy Institute in May of 2008,
Mishel and Gould were among the first to alter the tone: “In-
hospitable Job Market to Greet College Graduates” (2008: p. 1)
was the lead in their relatively early analysis of the dark job
market scene that the nation was entering. In actuality, the rosy
scenario of the very recent past was just that, and the authors
point to the early signs of job market weakening that had obvi-
ously escaped most analysts (not unlike the market woes itself).
But unlike the situation facing the class of 2008, where the job
prospects that they dreamed of turned out to be a nightmare, no
such illusion faced the class of 2009. By the fall of 2008 the
economy had tanked, and with it the senior class optimism. The
media perspective had changed dramatically from early to mid
to late 2008.
The Santa Cruz students whose dramatic change in behavior
stimulated this discussion, were, along with their peers across
the nation, suddenly confronting a world well beyond, actually
well short of their dreams only a short time earlier. And the full
extent of the plunge wasn’t yet obvious. “Grim prospects for
new grads” was the head line of a CNN story which, while
suggesting that “projected hiring for the class of 2009 is only
slightly higher than 2008 level”, at the same time cautioned that
“it is possible that [these estimates] will be revised downward
again” (Decker, 2009). Similar bad news was evident across the
nation’s media.9 At the time the national unemployment rate
was 6.1 percent! By graduation time in June the class of ’09
7Kahn (2009) writing as early as 2003, provided an early warning regarding
the poor job market opportunities likely to face college graduates inthe
latter part of the decade.
8The lead “Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?” on the Chicago Now
intern et site ac curat ely ch aracter izes the si tuat ion facing gradu ates i n sp ring
of 2010
9“For ’09 Grads, Job Prospects Take a Dive,” was the way Cari Tuna,
writing for the Wall Street Journal (2008) characterized the scene, suggest-
ing students would be f acing “the weakest outl ook in six years.”
5These responses are available from the author upon request.
6In a sense, the term “econ major” is quite misleading. There are actually
three sub-majors within the department; business management, economics,
and global economics. The vast majority of our students are in the first
group, and their interests differ significantly from the latter two groups,
which themselves differ considerably, as the global major requires study
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
was confronted with reported unemployment of well over 9
percent! The depth of the decline was for many as unexpected
and it was abrupt. “The Curse of the Class of 2009” was the
blunt way The Wall Street Journal characterized the situation.
And this was not likely to be a transitory bit of woe, but rather a
situation that for graduates would likely “haunt them for a dec-
ade or more” (Murray, 2009: p. 1).
What had become a calamity if not a curse for many college
graduates did not escape President Obama. It was the essential
theme in his commencement address to the students at Arizona
State University (The White House, Office of the Press Secre-
tary, 2009). After politely and politically jibing ASU’s presi-
dent for foregoing the “traditional” honorary degree confirma-
tion, the president told the students what they probably knew
quite well:
…For we gather here tonight in times of extraordinary diffi-
culty, for the nation and for the world. The economy remains in
the midst of a historic recession, the worst we’ve seen since the
Great Depression; the result, in part, of greed and irresponsibil-
ity that rippled out from Wall Street and Washington, as we
spent beyond our means and failed to make hard choices (Ap-
plause.) We’re engaged in two wars and a struggle against ter-
rorism. The threats of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and
pandemic defy national boundaries and easy solutions.
Obama summarized the advice he had offered to the students
in his concluding comments, comments it should be noted in
direct contradiction to the way the student/coffee house worker,
and many others, were confronting the economic reality:
I know starting your careers in troubled times is a challenge.
But it is also a privilege. Because it’s moments like these that
force us to try harder, to dig deeper, and to discover gifts we
never knew we had—to find the greatness that lies within each
of us. So don’t ever shy away from that endeavor. Don’t stop
adding to your body of work. I can promise that you will be the
better for that continued effort, as will this nation that we all
It’s unlikely that the president would have had anything dif-
ferent to say, had he been at ASU in June, 2010.10 From a
“peak” in September of just over 10 percent, the June graduates
entered a market little more promising, with unemployment at
9.5 percent. Indeed, little had, nor seemed likely to change for
college graduates in the near term. According to a recent EPI
paper, “It will take years for the labor market to recover from
the damage induced by the recent recession….For the class of
2010, it will be one of the worst years to graduate high school
or college since at least 1983 and possibly the worst since the
end of World War II. (Bivens et al., 2010: p. 1) That is, as bad
as things seemed in 2009 (see footnote 9 above), the dismal
prospects for the 2010 graduates were seen as even more “his-
toric” in nature.
And the woes extend to even younger students, as high
school graduates themselves have not been immune from the
economic failings. These younger graduates can avoid a tough
job market, at least for few years, by opting for college. Not
surprisingly, this option has become extremely attractive as
evidenced by the fact that “70 percent of last year’s [2009]
highs school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universi-
ties—the highest level on record since data collection started in
1959” (Barker, 2010). But that leaves 30 percent, approxi-
mately one million young people, most presumably looking for
work in the civilian labor market. And as the Bivens’ study
above notes, during the business cycles of ’89 and ’07, close to
72 percent of high school graduates not enrolled in school were
employed. For the present recession, the number has declined
to just under 60 percent (op. cit.: p. 4).11
As the New York Times lead vividly suggests, some of the
latter may well be described as “Recession’s Children.” (Green-
house, 2009). In writing of young high-school graduates com-
ing from middle-class communities in and around Dayton, Ohio,
many of whom knew just what their future held, “a good paying
job at General Motors factory or one of the Delphi auto parts
plants, get married and start families,” Greenhouse paints a
different picture:
But the deep recession and the downsizing of American
manufacturing have bulldozed these plans, leaving many of
these young people confused and rudderless, with some con-
templating a path that might be new to their families: college
(Ibid, p. 1).
Finally, it is worth noting that many of these young men and
women are opting for well defined vocationally oriented pro-
grams, most often offered by community colleges not far from
their homes. That is to say, it is unlikely that most students in
this segment of the college age population will wind up com-
peting with their peers whose initial goal was a four year degree.
And the latter, in their pursuit of a college degree have adjusted
their plans and degree interests to a significant extent. An as-
pect of student behavior that is in itself interesting, not unex-
pected, and perhaps with less than desirable long term implica-
Changing Environment, Changing Majors
Among the infinite number of “10 most…” lists that abound
in our culture, those dealing with college majors are of particu-
lar interest in helping to understand how students are coping
with the new and depressed world they must confront. While
students can do next to nothing to impact the kinds of jobs and
careers that seem most promising in the present and foreseeable
future, they can adjust to this changing reality in the programs
and degrees they choose to pursue.
As is often said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know
which way the wind is blowing; and the winds of change in
regard to college majors have been with us for some time,
moving students out of the arts and humanities, into some, but
not all programs in the social and physical sciences. Well be-
fore the present economic decline, movement out of the arts
11This deterioration h as been in evid ence since the mid-2 0th century. Teen
unemployment averaged between 5 and 20 percent from the mid 1950’s
through the ’70s. From 1980 through 2004 the rate fluctuated between
approximately 11 and 28 percent. By the end of 2009 teen unemployment
was just over 37 percent (Econompicdata, 2010). It is also worth noting that
while the total number of high-school graduates is ex
ected to hav e peaked
(in 2008-09), projections suggest that the ethnic composition will continue
to chang e, with increases in Hi spanic and Black g raduates increasi ng close
to 20 and 13 percent respectively (Guerard, 2004). Given existing employ-
ment differences, these are two groups whose job market prospects pale in
comparison to white and Asian youth, a situation that suggests continued
labor market difficulties for young workers.
10Had John McCain been president, this assertion may well have been
wildly incorrect. Obama’s speech was all about the economic situation,
mentioning “economy,” “challenges,” “jobs” and “difficult times” 6, 4, 3
and 2 times respectively.” In McCain’s May, 2010 speech at Ohio Wesle-
yan none of the first three words were uttered, and the latter is used in
describing his personal “difficulty” in being original and with hardening o
the arteries.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1111
and humanities was both clear and significant, as the number of
students majoring in the humanities during the period 1970/71
to 2003/2004 clearly attests (Chance, 2009: p.1).
English: 7.6 percent of college majors to 3.9,
Foreign languages and literatures: 2.5 to 1.3 percent,
Philosophy and religious studies: 0.9 to 0.7 percent,
History: 18.5 to 10.7 percent
This broad decline represents a movement of just over 13
percent of college students out of the humanities. According to
Chance, during this same period the growth in business majors
rose from 13.7 to 21.9 percent; in a sense suggesting that over
60 percent of students majoring in the humanities in the early
1970’s had become business majors. This is obviously not the
case on a precise one-to-one basis, but the general pattern is
quite vivid. For example, in his analysis of changes in college
majors during the 1970s and 80s, Eric Hide (1994: p. 55) finds
a clear shift out of “low-skill fields such as education and let-
ters …[into] high-skill fields such as engineering and business
(emphasis added).12 And what was true for over thirty years
into the initial years of the 21st century remains the case today,
with business and management commerce the top choice of
students in 2010, while majors in the arts and humanities
dominate the ten worst lists. While there are no “official” na-
tional lists of top/bottom best in any category, including college
majors, the popular lists available speak in much the same
Perhaps the most cited list is that published by the Princeton
Review, where Business Administration and Management/
Commerce lead among the top 10 college majors (Pincetonre-, 2008) Lauren Russell (2010) writes that “in the
wake of the recession, the American college experience has
decidedly become more career-driver” (emphasis added: p. 1).
And further, “those were likely to land a job pursued career-
driven majors like accounting, business administration, com-
puter sciences, engineering, and mathematics” (Ibid: p. 2). As
will be discussed below, this move in the broad sense is cer-
tainly “rational” in terms of relative pay. According to the Chris
Morran (2010), engineering degrees (computer, electrical, etc.)
dominated the top the paying jobs in 2010. Economics was the
only non-science major to break into this elite group.13
It is worth noting, however, that the rational for going where
the jobs are today may or may not extend into the future. In a
sense, this depends on who’s doing the forecasting. For exam-
ple, according to projections provided by the Bureau of Labor
Statistics (2009: p. 10), job openings 8 to 10 years hence look
very much like the pattern in 2010. The BLS job forecast for
the five fastest growing occupations for those with a bachelor’s
degree are biomedical engineers, network systems and data
communications analysts financial examiners, athletic trainers
and computer software engineers.
The College Board (2010) foresees a distinctly different pic-
ture. Jobs in elementary and secondary education make up three
of the four occupations expected to see the greatest growth,
with seemingly “old reliable” accountants and auditors second
of the four. Occupations in the areas of computers and systems
analysts make up five of the remaining ten (well below the
teachers in absolute numbers), with market research analyst
listed as number 10. In light of the present drastic budget im-
plications and the layoffs in education all across the nation this
prediction may seem foolhardy in the extreme, or alternatively
extremely prescient. It certainly implies an attitude towards
local, state and federal taxation that seems nowhere on the ho-
rizon. Neither the BLS nor the College Board sees such a turn-
around for the arts and humanities.
At the other “worst” end, the earlier trend remains in force.
For example, with reference to the most recent job opportuni-
ties, Writing for Yahoo!hotjobs, Charles Purdy (2010) includes
drama, fine arts, Spanish and music among the ten worst-pay-
ing college degrees. Thus, as indicated above with respect to
the dramatic decline in humanities majors, this behavior is fully
consistent with the world into which college students are enter-
ing. And it is behavior that one might well consider “rational.”
There are, interestingly, contrarians among the humanities,
particularly in philosophy at some if not all universities. Winnie
Hu (2008) notes an increase in the number philosophy majors
as evidence of, students opting “for the life examined”. In addi-
tion to her commentary on individual students and their moti-
vation, Hu notes a significant increase in the number of phi-
losophy majors in several of the nation’s top universities, in-
cluding Rutgers and City University of New York, Texas A&M,
University of Pittsburgh and U. Mass at Amherst all had a dou-
bling of philosophy majors over the 1990s, and the number of
undergraduate programs nationally increased from 765 to 817.
This trend remains, perhaps for reasons that have little to do
with immediate job market access. As Professor Ronald Tacelli,
S.J. head of the department at Boston University, argues, “kids
are attracted to a non-practical major by a surfeit of good teach-
ers” (Sullivan, 2010).
While obviously significant and relevant to the issues being
considered here, the above pattern at several major universities
is hardly universal. As indicated in a recent Leiter Reports, the
Board of Governors for higher education in Pennsylvania has
instituted a policy in terms of minimum number of graduates
that will results in the elimination of philosophy departments at
a number of the state’s universities.14 Nor is this “counter”
trend (decline) in philosophy limited to state colleges in the U.S.
The closing of the philosophy department at Middlesex Univer-
sity in England has created a virtual cause celeb across that
nation and on the internet.15
Twenty Years down the Road and Beyond
While the discussion flowing from the initial comments and
14According to the Leiter Reports(2010), Philosophy departments are
“under attack” in states across the nation; several state universities depart-
ments in Pennsylvania are being pressured to increase enrollments signifi-
cantly, or close. A similar situation exists elsewhere, including Louisiana,
Alabama and New Jersey.
15See for example, Finlayson, Gordon (May 2nd, 2010), who writes that in
the closing, “Middlesex is betraying its own academic values.”This is but
one of the literally dozens of protests posted in regard to the Middlesex
decision. While gaining an overwhelming amount of attention across the
Atlantic, Middlesex is not alone in this cutback. See Andrew Shearwood
(2009) in regard to Liverpool University’s situation, and Ferdinand von
Prondzynski (2010) in regard to universities in Ireland. In all cases, the core
issue in such decisions is lack of enrollment.
12And as Eide notes, this trend has been more significant for females than
for males, which in itself “contributed to a decline in the genderwage gap
for college graduates.” (Eide, 1994: p. 55).
13It is important to note the distinction between economics and business
oriented majors. Not that long ago, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Tris-
tan Mabry (1998) observed that the elite universities in the nation “don’t
consider business a suitable discipline for undergraduates, students inter-
esting in the sub ject often turn t o economics as a sub stitute” (p. A2) No th-
ing has changed in this regard, and may well help to explain the seemingly
contradictory behavior of students in their choice of major today, an issue
discussed below.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
meetings with students in Santa Cruz rightly has focused on the
various ways in which today’s college students are coping with
a dismal job market awaiting them, most will find themselves
working for several decades, that is years beyond their immedi-
ate future. I want to conclude briefly with the extent to which
the decisions regarding choice of major which students must
make while in college may or may not impact this longer pe-
The well documented and extended trend away from the arts
and humanities described above has been in evidence for much
of the post WW II era and has, at least over the past 20 years
been mirrored by the growth in the accounting major.16 In some
ways this is easy to understand, and is consistent with “ra-
tional” human behavior, particularly over what might be con-
sidered the “short run”. And if students were to take the
well-quoted advice of John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that
in the long run we are all dead, they would seem to be on solid
ground.17 On the other hand, it may not be the best decision
students can or should be making. In one of his many truly
significant contributions to economic thought, Gary Becker,
Nobel Prize winner and a leading member of the un-abashedly
conservative Chicago School, has suggested that the trends out
of the humanities and liberal arts more broadly, may in fact be
quite irrational. The relevant and persuasive argument comes in
his seminal work, Human Capital. Becker is discussing the rate
of return (payoff) to a college education, and writes the follow-
An important factor increasing the difficulty of anticipating
the gain from college is that it is collected over a very long time
[often well beyond ten years of graduation]. A long payoff
period increases risk along with low correlations between re-
turns by reducing the value of information available when in-
vesting. Incidentally, the long payoff period increases the ad-
vantage of an education that is useful in many kinds of future
economics environments. If “liberal education were identified
with such flexible educations, as well it may be, there would be
an important economic argument for liberal education, as well
as arguments based on intellectual and cultural considerations.
(Becker, 1975: p. 190, emphasis added).
As if to reinforce Becker’s latter point, another major
economist, Tibor Scitovsky, in his lament (The Joyless Econ-
omy) over the dominance of Puritan values in American life,
echoes Becker’s argument regarding the value of “intellectual
and cultural considerations.”
A higher social rationality and a willingness to act in soci-
ety’s interest are probably the best remedies, but in the case of
culture there are others, too. Since consumption skills are typi-
cally acquired by the young while they are in school, more
mandatory liberal arts courses in the school curriculum are one
alternative, and since much of the training in consumption
skills is learning by doing, subsidies to the arts are another. All
such measure, to be effective, must be based on a proper under-
standing of the meaning and purpose of culture. It is hard to
ram things down peoples throats for the good of their souls
(Scitovsky, 1992: p. 247, emphasis added).
At an earlier time, in a very different national crisis, and on a
much “grander” scale, Robert Heilbronner made much the same
point his 1970’s essay, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect. In
the start of his final chapter, “What Has Posterity Ever Done for
Me? Heilbroner gives several examples illustrating our inability
to forego acts of immediate consumption in an effort to extend
life on earth a mere 100 years. In economic terms, we all tend
to “discount” the future, and in a sense for understandable rea-
son. The degree of uncertainty about years and decades ahead
of us make it difficult to avoid the instinct to act on what we
can see today. And yet, it is precisely in the decades ahead
where students of any era are apt to reap the greatest benefits
from the choices they make while in college. The temptation to
act on immediate circumstances is understandable if not neces-
sarily wise. Indeed, however much we tend, properly so, to take
the economists forecast with a grain or two of salt, the words of
Becker and Scitivosky, embody the essential wisdom college
students need as they prepare for both work and life.
A Brief Coda
As if to put an exclamation point on the latter conclusions, a
story appeared in the New York Times that might well be the
lawyer’s “closing argument”. According to Hartocollis (2010),
the Humanities and Medicine Program at the Mount Sinai
medical school in Manhattan admits limited number (35) stu-
dents into their program each year “if they study humanities or
social sciences instead of the traditional pre-medical school
curriculum and maintain a 3.5 grade-point average. (Ibid, em-
phasis added). Nor it turns out is this experiment in its embry-
onic stage, as it has been going “full tilt” for ten years.18 Rather,
the evidence based on the graduating classes from 2004 through
2009 indicate that the “traditionally” prepared students (606)
are “equilivent” to the students (85) who entered the program
with a college major that would not be considered elsewhere.19
What must it be like talking with a doctor who is as conversant
with Plato or Marx as she is with Hippocrates?
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16Interestingly, this extended trend into accounting may be abating some-
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college freshman, the number of students entering college in 2009 and
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17This quite, initially from his A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923), really
doesn’t apply here. The quote is most famously used in response to the
classical economists’ notion that if left to its own devices a private econ-
omy would tend toward equilibrium in the long run. The key is the term
“tend,” which may take in infinite amount of time. Not the period most
college students envis ion with re gard to their working lives.
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18Interestingly, the longer term impact on quality, if any, remains to be seen
As Dr. David Battinelli, of Hofstra University cautioned, “Let’s see how
they’re doing 5 and 10 years down the road.” (Ibid: p. 1).
19According to Dr. Dan Hunt, of the Liason Committee on Medical Educa-
tion, while there are other programs that do not require students to take the
MCAT, Mount Sinai appears to have gone furthest in eschewing traditional
science prepa ra tion (I bi d: p. 2).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1113
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
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