The College Major: Too Many Choices? - Jeff Selingo


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The College Major: Too Many Choices?

This is the time of year when high-school seniors across the country are making decisions about where to go to college. For some students and their families, so much time, effort, and anxiety is spent picking the right school. But it seems so little time is spent trying to figure out what to major in.

By now, some students have already chosen their major by checking a box on the application form. The choices of majors are greater than ever before. As the race for more and more credentials became the game in the last decade for those looking to gain any edge in the competitive job market, colleges pounced on the opportunity by creating a bevy of new majors.

In 2010, when the U.S. Education Department updated its list of academic programs used in various higher-education surveys, more than 300 titles were added to the previous list from a decade earlier, a 22 percent increase.  A third of the new programs were in just two fields: what I’ll broadly call health professionals and homeland security. It’s clear from looking at the list that the September 11th terrorist attacks and licensure requirements for health-care workers in many states played a huge role in the increase in majors in those fields.

Other fast growing fields were biology and biological sciences and foreign languages and linguistics, according to an analysis that the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University did for me.

The 1990s saw similar growth in the number of degree titles. Indeed, nearly 4 in 10 titles on the list today weren’t there in 1990.

So what caused such an uptick in the number of degree programs? The answer depends on who you ask. The two most common answers I have heard:

Colleges are responding to the labor market. This is the belief of many labor economists who say that as the economy has become more specialized, employers want workers with more specific and technical skills.

Colleges need to create new programs to drive demand. This is the belief of critics of how colleges operate who say that many of these new majors are marketing ploys by colleges to attract students and differentiate themselves from competitors.

The proliferation of majors is one reason Clay Christensen thinks higher-ed costs have soared. Christensen is the professor at Harvard Business School who has written about disruptions in many industries, most recently in higher ed. As new majors are created, he maintains that whole new infrastructures are built to support them. He asks, What if traditional colleges offered only a few “gateway” majors, and then used technology to personalize and individualize teaching on specific subjects?

What do you think – why the dramatic increase in new majors over the last 10, 20 years? Do colleges offer too many choices of programs? What do you think of Christensen’s idea of “gateway” majors?