Even if students recognized before graduation that positions in their chosen field might not even cover their loan payments, they might not have the preparation to choose more potentially lucrative majors. According to a 2011 study by ACT Inc., less than half of U.S. high-school graduates who took the ACT test were prepared for college-level math, and fewer than a third of tested high-school graduates were ready for college-level science. And it’s no secret that humanities and social science courses tend to be easier than their math and hard science counterparts.
It is certainly possible to receive a strong education in the humanities and social sciences, but the vast majority of American colleges are not providing one. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, fewer than two in five colleges require a single literature course, fewer than one in five require American history or government, less than 14 percent have an intermediate-level foreign language requirement, and less than 5 percent require basic economics.
Employers do value the skills that one can gain from a strong liberal arts education. A recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal quoted a successful Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur as saying, “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.” Prospective bosses are searching for people who can write well, but those are pretty hard to come by. Which is not surprising, given how many professors are too busy writing obscure articles in dreadful academic lingo to help students who are struggling with basic sentence construction.
All this will probably get worse before it gets better. In the past year, one social science professor at a public research university told me her department instructed her to stop assigning papers and just give multiple-choice exams, in order to reduce the workload of grad students. Another was told by an administrator to stop correcting grammar in his students’ essays, because the kids don’t like all that criticism, and besides, it’s not an English class.