In September, my final year as an undergraduate student starts. For the first time in a while, I don’t have to worry about which courses I need to take. Having conquered SOLAR in June for the last time, I don’t envy those still trying to get into courses, much less those trying to figure out what their major will be.
In today’s economy, it’s often easier to ask questions about which majors are ‘useful’ in terms of monetary investment—as opposed to why we really want to major in something, or anything, and why we came to university in the first place.
Media outlets have been reporting for some time that students are shifting away from the liberal arts and toward more ‘practical’ fields of study. Lists of “Most practical majors” and “Highest paying jobs” have been springing up vigorously. They’re hard to turn away from, given the dismal job market millennials are facing. The Washington Post reported that 70 per cent more American college grads worked minimum wage jobs in 2012 compared to ten years before. The Globe and Mail published an online interactive “time machine” showing that Canadian university grads of 2010 have it worse in terms of income, housing prices, tuition, and student loans, than grads had it 30 years ago.
After OUAC released confirmation statistics earlier this month, Maclean’s On Campus ran a short article on how students are opting for practical programs. (In Ontario, confirmed acceptances to university science programs are up 5.2 per cent from last year and down 1.6 per cent in the arts, although the fine and applied arts experienced an 8.7 per cent increase.)
But ‘practicality’ is too often being associated with ‘employability,’ though they don’t imply the same things. In the current job market, being able to apply skills you’ve learned doesn’t necessarily mean you will get a job. Students feel pressure to look employable on paper, and many struggle to gain experience that leads somewhere and pays a decent wage, too.
How career development can be improved and whether students are fully prepared for the workplace are concerns that most programs are grappling with. There’s nothing about the humanities, sciences or social sciences that makes one more objectively valuable, or “practical,” than another.
We should be speaking more directly to the economic reasons why universities and students are in a tough spot, instead of painting a bleak picture of academia being divided between ‘old-’ and ‘new-’ age programs. The reality is that post-secondary education as a system needs revamping.
That being said, university is not for everyone. It’s not fair to keep telling high-schoolers that they will fit the mould if they just try. (Note: OUAC’s statistics show a steady increase in confirmation of university acceptances, from 67,393 in 2004 to 91,378 this year.)
As student debt soars and issues like underfunding continue to be hotly debated, public institutions should avoid overstating the monetary returns for an undergraduate degree, and students shouldn’t underestimate the cost (financial and social) of getting one.
And if a student does choose one program over another, it should be because they are genuinely interested in going another route, not because they’ve been told not to take a risk on the ‘impractical.’