Trustees | General Education

Is Majoring in English Worth It?

WALL STREET JOURNAL   |  September 10, 2019 by William McGurn

The summer holidays have finally ended, and across America college students are returning to campus. But not before someone—most likely mom or dad—has written a hefty tuition check. If you’re a parent going into hock to pay for your son or daughter’s degree in English lit, you may be feeling a mite anxious about what you are getting for all those dollars.

A just-released Bankrate study won’t make you feel any better. In a ranking of 162 college majors by median income and unemployment rate, English majors landed among the bottom dwellers, at 132. At $47,800 in median income, they did better than those in drama ($35,500) or fine arts ($37,000), but they earned less than half as much as someone who majored in, say, electrical engineering ($99,000).

Alas, even if your undergrad is happy with his English major now, other studies say he will come to regret it. In June, a Payscale survey of 250,000 college grads reported 1 in 5 with a humanities degree as saying that, next to their student loans, their choice of major was their biggest educational regret. A 2017 MarketWatch story was blunt: It called English “the most regretted college major in America.”

Manifestly, English majors aren’t getting much respect these days—including self-respect. But don’t blame the kids. Colleges sell themselves as a ticket to upward mobility, without providing the data students and parents need to weigh college costs against expected benefits. Humanities students have it even worse, because the watering down of the curriculum has diminished the value of degrees such as English or history.

In marketing college to prospective students, universities like to cite the significant difference in lifetime earnings between someone with a bachelor’s degree and someone with a high school diploma. Fair enough. But as the Bankrate survey illustrates, the earnings differential among college degrees can be significant too.

Economist Richard Vedder, author of “Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America,” has long urged colleges to give students many more measures along the lines of the Bankrate survey. What students especially need, however, isn’t averages but the worth of particular degrees from particular universities.

“When you spend $100,000 or more for something, you are entitled to know the probable value of what you are getting,” says Mr. Vedder.

No one is surprised to learn that STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) out-earn English majors. After all, the purpose of what used to be called a “liberal education” has never been about a high-paying career. Even so, Jonathan Pidluzny, director of academic affairs for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), notes that employers nevertheless prize the critical thinking, communication skills and judgment cultivated by a liberal-arts education.

“The English major was once a guarantor of effective, formal writing skills and the ability to comprehend and analyze the complex thoughts found within centuries of brilliant and challenging poetry and prose,” he told Campus Reform. “Its decline into the epiphenomena of popular culture and identity politics is a self-inflicted wound that has rocked its credibility.”

In other words, what’s on offer today isn’t your father’s English degree. An ACTA study of English programs reports that 48 of 52 top schools (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report) allow English majors to graduate without ever having taken a course on Shakespeare. In the past ACTA has also highlighted studies showing that the average grad, even those from prestigious flagship universities, shows little or no improvement in critical thinking for having gone to college.

Here the much-maligned English degree is simply a proxy for what is wrong with college today. It isn’t that STEM subjects are the only majors worth anything. It’s that the humanities have disproportionately been infected by political correctness and the malignant influence of Herbert Marcuse, father of the “repressive tolerance” so prevalent on campuses these days.

In a phone conversation, Mr. Pidluzny maintains that a humanities major rooted in a rigorous core curriculum still provides value. The operative word is rigor. The 2018 Strada-Gallup survey reports that college grads who “strongly agree” they were challenged academically are 2.4 times more likely to say their degree was worth the cost.

So why have the sciences kept their integrity while the humanities haven’t? Mr. Pidluzny suggests it’s because the costs of a dumbed-down STEM degree can be both more obvious and more consequential.

“The university can’t get away with not teaching engineering students differential equations because we’d then have collapsing bridges all over the place,” he says.

“But for an English major who studies Harry Potter instead of Chaucer, or spends his time on gender theory instead of reading great literature, the costs aren’t as obvious—except to the graduate who only later realizes he never developed the keen analytical mind and precise style of writing college was supposed to cultivate.”


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