Go ahead, get that liberal arts degree

The time in college spent learning the practical knowledge that might lead to a first job, such as the latest health-care regulations, comes at the expense of learning other things that have a much longer shelf life.

One of the big changes in higher education in the last decade or so has been the very explicit focus on degrees and majors that lead to jobs.

College graduate
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If you take public transportation almost anywhere in the U.S., you'll see an avalanche of advertisements offering college degrees that promise good jobs in subfields within health care and business, such as medical-records reporting or sales-force management. Many of those degrees are for two-year programs, but the same thing has happened in four-year, baccalaureate programs. From tourism management to health-care administration to sales, the list of practical majors has exploded and, with it, the idea that a college should really serve as a kind of job training.

We hear much the same thing from pundits — especially around state colleges and universities — saying that we have too many liberal arts majors that go nowhere and that students should just choose majors where the jobs are. In fact, the percentage of college students taking liberal arts has been shrinking consistently for some time. The most popular major, business, continues to expand with more than three times as many students as liberal arts. Meanwhile practical majors focusing on industries (e.g., casino management or pharmaceutical marketing) continue to grow.

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There are many things wrong with this shift toward occupationally-focused majors and degrees. The first and most important is that we really don't have any evidence that employers actually care much about very practical majors like turf management or retail sales (yes these are real programs). What employers report they want even in new grads, perhaps surprisingly, is work experience: Of the top five attributes they say they pay most attention to in recent grads, top on the list is internships, followed by other work experience, college major, extracurricular activities and volunteering. Only one has anything to do with the classroom experience. At least so far, classrooms are not good substitutes for what one would learn on the job.

The second thing wrong with the rise of practical degrees is that it is extremely difficult to predict what the jobs landscape will look like when you graduate, which for most students is more than four years down the road. We hear a lot about STEM skills being hot, for example, but only 50 percent of students graduating with a STEM degree get a job in the field, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

What turns out to be hot are typically subfields – like petroleum majors within engineering – that pay extraordinarily well, precisely because no one imagined that they would be booming. A few years ago, no one was going into petroleum engineering because those graduates were waiting tables. When fracking jump-started the demand for petroleum engineers, the supply was small, so wages rose quickly, and it became by far the highest paid field for undergrads. Students then poured into that major, collapsing oil prices cut the demand for exploration, and that bubble is about to burst.

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A third reason to be skeptical of the idea that these vocational majors are a good bet is that information about how many graduates actually get jobs in their field is extraordinarily hard to get. Colleges don't have to report that information, many don't, and when they do report it, there is no standard format (e.g., does an unpaid internship count as a job?) to allow apples-to-apples comparisons across colleges.

A final reason to be suspicious of the benefit of these job-focused majors is that they only claim to get you a first job. What happens then? Consider, for example, degrees in information technology, which many people see as a guaranteed path to a high-paying career. The IT industry does offer some very enticing salaries for new hires, especially if you happen to have the subspecialty in your field that is hot right then, such as mobile-application knowledge. But the proportion of people leaving the IT field after a few short years is very high, and the explanation is their perceptions that those initial jobs are dead-ends: There is no real career path past one's first role, and many of those hot-shot new hires in a few years can be replaced by new graduates who happen to have the hot skill du jour.

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The time in college spent learning the practical knowledge that might lead to a first job, such as the latest health-care regulations, comes at the expense of learning other things that have a much longer shelf life. How do we get the knowledge or ability to reinvent ourselves or even change fields if all we've ever been taught is the practical skills in one field? Interesting evidence from the UK compares Scottish graduates, who typically have a broad education, to English graduates, who specialize in one field. They found that the former seem to do better making transitions in careers later in life.

Maybe taking the long view that college is preparation for life, including a lifetime of jobs, really does make more sense than seeing it as job training.

Commentary by Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at The Wharton School and Director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources. He is also the author of numerous books, including his most recent, "Will College Pay Off?"