Colleges Pressure Students Away from the Humanities

by Cassandra Skolnick, March 7, 2021

The emphasis on STEM-related majors at colleges and universities has been aggressively fueled by the growing influence of educational systems and political propaganda (Wright). Job seeking websites—including Monster.com—stated that when it came to the highest-paid industries, “…No surprise, STEM majors—science, technology, engineering, and math—came out on top” (Monster.com). Based on salary figures from 2020, STEM-related careers earned on average 26.45% more than humanities-related careers (Monster.com). It makes sense that young people would be persuaded towards pursuing STEM related careers. But are there external factors pressuring college students away from the humanities?

In June 2020, the Australian government announced an economic reform package that was directed to lower the course fees associated for “job-relevant” courses, while at the same time, doubling the cost of programs in the humanities (Duffy). This raise puts the cost of humanities programs at the same level as medical schools; med school programs saw a 46 percent decrease, while humanities programs saw a 113 percent increase (Duffy). The Australian government stated that this economic reform package is aimed at increasing the employment rate for graduates, with employment growth in STEM-related fields expected to be significantly higher post-pandemic (Sears and Clark).

Australia is not the only country influencing the career track of college students. George Washington University’s (GW) president, Dr. Thomas LeBlanc, announced in 2019 that he planned to increase enrollment in STEM-related majors from 19 to 30 percent (Rich and Schwartz). As the undergraduate population shifts to STEM related programs, the number of STEM programs and courses will also have to increase in order to accommodate the increasing number of students. Katrin Schultheiss, chair of GW’s history department, worries that “…the changes will necessitate reductions in funding for non-STEM departments and result in a ‘radical shifting of resources away from non-STEM fields’” (Rich and Schwartz).

This push for STEM programs and graduates comes from a fear of losing the race for high-tech supremacy to China (Herman). Where does this fear originate from? In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said, “…Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs” (Archives.com). We can theorize that this fear derives from the American perception of the “Chinese Threat,” a fear that China will conduct “…brazen cyber intrusions” (FBI.gov) or continue to saturate our economy with global exports (Mack). Fear of the “Chinese Threat” did result in a significant increase in the number of STEM degrees; however, according to a 2016 Census Report, only 74 percent of those college graduates pursued STEM-related careers following graduation (Mand Labs).

Now, elementary schools are introducing STEM curriculums, including hands-on learning to promote STEM skills, hiring and retaining well-trained experts as teachers for STEM curriculums, and working to eliminate the gender pay disparity (Mand Labs); hoping to further increase enrollment in higher education STEM degree programs to meet the growing demand of STEM related careers. Whether or not these new strategies will be effective remains to be seen. What does the continued push for STEM degree programs mean for the humanities, in a world where humanities are needed more than ever? Increasing costs of attending humanities programs, coupled with budget cuts following the 2008 financial crisis, “…have resulted in some schools eliminating courses and degrees in subjects, such as foreign languages, art, and history” (Mullin). Deborah Fitzgerald, a professor of the history of technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says state schools are the first to eliminate humanities curricula: “…Their boards just don’t think they are important anymore” (Mullin).

References

“The China Threat.” FBI.gov, FBI.gov, 10 July 2020, http://www.fbi.gov/investigate/counterintelligence/the-china-threat.

 “Current State of STEM Education in the US: What Needs to Be Done?” Mand Labs, Mand Labs, 6 May 2020, http://www.mandlabs.com/current-state-of-stem-education-in-us-what-needs-to-be-done/.

Duffy, Conor. “Humanities Degrees to Double in Cost as Government Funnels Students into ‘Job-Relevant’ Uni Courses.” ABC News, ABC News, 19 June 2020, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-19/university-fees-tertiary-education-overhaul-course-costs/12367742.

Herman, Arthur. “America’s High-Tech STEM Crisis.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 10 Sept. 2018, http://www.forbes.com/sites/arthurherman/2018/09/10/americas-high-tech-stem-crisis/?sh=32a6c48bf0a2.

Lawler, Moira. “College Majors with the Highest Starting Salaries.” Monster Career Advice, Monster.com, http://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/best-paid-jobs-by-major.

Mack, Graeme. “Perspective | Why Americans Shouldn’t Fear China’s Growing Economy.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Apr. 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/04/24/why-americans-shouldnt-fear-chinas-growing-economy/.

Mullin, Rick. “Behind the Scenes at the STEM-Humanities Culture War.” C&EN, C&EN, 16 July 2019, http://cen.acs.org/education/undergraduate-education/Behind-the-scenes-STEM-humanities-culture-war/97/i29.

Rich, Alec, and Ethan Schwartz. “Push to Grow STEM Majors May Mean Cuts Elsewhere, Faculty Say.” The GW Hatchet, The GW Hatchet, 30 Sept. 2019, http://www.gwhatchet.com/2019/09/30/push-to-increase-stem-majors-could-prompt-cuts-in-non-stem-departments-faculty-say/.

Sears, Alan, and Penney Clark. “Stop Telling Students to Study STEM Instead of Humanities for the Post-Coronavirus World.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 19 Jan. 2021, http://theconversation.com/stop-telling-students-to-study-stem-instead-of-humanities-for-the-post-coronavirus-world-145813.

“State of the Union Photo Gallery.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, http://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/realitycheck/node/196546.

Wright, Joshua. “Stem Majors on the Rise as Humanities Decline Across the Country.” Emsi, Emsi, 20 Mar. 2016, http://www.economicmodeling.com/2016/03/20/stem-programs-humanities-in-each-state/.

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