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Nearly 2 in 5 US college graduates regret their major

Nearly half of humanities and arts students regret their choice – and enrollment in these disciplines is declining rapidly

Graduating students arrive for the commencement ceremony at Columbia University in New York on May 18, 2016.
Graduate students arrive for the graduation ceremony at Columbia University in New York on May 18, 2016. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)


Nearly 2 in 5 American adults have major regrets.

That is to say, they regret their university degree.

The late include a healthy population of liberal arts majors, who can react to pervasive social cues. When delivering his 2011 State of the Union address in the shadow of the Great Recession, former President Barack Obama plugged in math and science education and called on Americans to “innovate , educate and build more than the rest of the world”. .” Since then, the number of new arts and humanities graduates has plunged.

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Meanwhile, nearly half of humanities and arts majors have student remorse as of 2021. Engineering majors have the fewest regrets: Only 24% wish they had chosen something different, according to a Federal Reserve survey.

Generally, those who studied STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – are much more likely to believe they made the right choice, while those in social sciences or vocational courses question themselves.

The most consequential and least informed decision students make

There doesn’t seem to be much of a relationship between loans, gender, race, or school selectivity and your regrets. However, as you might have guessed, our analysis of Fed data shows that the higher your income today, the less you regret the major you chose in college.

Regrets have remained relatively stable since 2016, the first year for which we have consistent data. The most notable exception, education, has gone from below-average regrets before the pandemic to above-average regrets in 2021. Life sciences, on the other hand, have seen a steady and substantial decline in regrets .

The Fed’s annual survey of household economics and decision-making also asks whether people regret the specific school they went to. Those in vocational programs are most likely to regret school, while education students are least likely.

Regardless of major, half of those who went to private, for-profit schools regret their decision, perhaps because students in for-profit schools are much more likely to struggle to pay off student debt. Similar regrets affect only 21% of those who went to public colleges and universities and 30% of those who attended private nonprofits.

A large majority of vocational and technical students (60%) wish they had continued their education, while less than 40% of law, life sciences and engineering students think the same.

The growing regret among humanities and arts majors may help explain why humanities graduates are a dying breed.

“There’s a pretty big shift going on,” said historian and digital humanist Ben Schmidt. “The numbers have dropped 50% and there is no indication that they will rebound.”

By 2021, disciplines such as History, English and Religion have graduated less than half the students compared to their peak in the early 2000s, relative to the overall size of the graduating student body, according to Schmidt’s analysis of National Center for Education data. Statistics.

According to Schmidt, the Great Recession triggered the beginning of a downward spiral in the humanities such as history, art, philosophy, English and foreign languages.

“During the time of the Great Recession, Barack Obama was saying we needed more STEM majors and fewer English majors,” Schmidt said. “It was a story you heard from a lot of people in influential positions…and I think it made a difference.”

In the decade since our national STEM pivot, the number of computer science graduates has doubled. Every STEM field recorded significant gains. Nursing, exercise science, medicine, environment, engineering, math and statistics all grew by at least 50%. Among the humanities, only two increased: cultural, ethnic and gender studies, and linguistics.

Schmidt said it’s possible the country’s pro-STEM campaign has led many humanities graduates to retrospectively regret their choice of degree, even though another major may not have improved their job opportunities. at the height of a global city center. They were struggling and their degree was an obvious scapegoat.

In an analysis published in the Atlantic a few years ago, Schmidt noted that while culture wars and student debt don’t explain humanities data well — even Christian colleges and colleges with financial aid generous have experienced declines – this corresponds to a wave of young millennials who, scarred by the financial crisis, are increasingly obsessed with majors offering better job prospects.

Perspective: The humanities face a credibility crisis

Over their lifetime, a typical history or journalism student can expect to earn about $3.4 million, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data from 2014 to 2018 by economist Douglas Webber, who now works for the Federal Reserve. A typical economics, biological sciences, or chemistry major can expect to earn $4.6 million over the same period, adjusted for inflation.

But these typical incomes hide that who you are matters just as much as what you study. According to Weber’s research, many of the highest-paying humanities majors earn more than the lowest-paying STEM majors. For example, the top quarter of history majors earn $4.2 million in their career. That puts them above the bottom quarter of earners in the highest-paying majors, such as chemical and aerospace engineering.

Humanities scholars say these majors open up higher earning opportunities later in life because they don’t lock students into one programming language, certification, or narrow career path. The critical thinking taught in humanities courses allows students to adapt to jobs that may not have existed when they enrolled in college.

“Having a background in asking tough questions is pretty important, and that applies to all sorts of different career situations,” said Quinn Dombrowski, an academic technology specialist at Stanford University.

Dombrowski’s degree in Slavic linguistics led her to a career in academic information technology, high-performance computing, and helping researchers using computers to analyze languages. In her spare time, she founded the Data-Sitters Club and co-founded an effort to archive Ukrainian websites before they were taken down by Russian hackers and mortars.

“When we’re working with undergrads on digital humanities projects,” Quinn said, “it’s often easier to take a humanities undergrad and teach them just enough coding to do what they’re doing.” they have to do rather than take some of the CS majors who can do the coding in their sleep, but don’t really think about the questions in the nuanced way we need them to.

Schmidt said that while he now spends much of his time coding and analyzing data, he’s still glad he studied humanities as an undergrad.

“I don’t regret my undergraduate major, in part because I was able to learn all the programming languages ​​I needed on my own,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t need a computer class to do that,” he added.

But Quinn said she understands undergraduates’ desire to embark on high-paying tech careers immediately after college rather than rolling the dice on a humanities degree and believing opportunities will arise.

“It’s good to tell people that it sets them up for better longer-term prospects for their careers,” Quinn said. “But students – especially [those] who have incurred substantial student debt – have immediate needs to pay rent and then repay those loans.

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