New college majors for changing needs

College students in classroom.


Kai Ryssdal: Some cities up near the fire have canceled the first day of school, it was supposed to have been today.

A lot of college students around the country have either started classes already, or are about to. And as they choose their course loads for the semester amid rising tuition costs, there's less and less enthusiasm for the old stand-by majors like history or political science or biology. Marketplace's Steve Henn reports that today's students want something that sells.

STEVE HENN: Mark Taylor is a tenured religion professor at Columbia University. But he compares higher education to the Detroit Big Three.

MARK TAYLOR: They are producing a product for which there's no market.

Which wouldn't be so bad if these students also had skills valued outside academia but...

TAYLOR: The skills that they are given are in many instances unrelated to the world in which they are going to work.

Taylor thinks universities should build curriculums around real world problems. Like energy or water management. Right now, he says universities are too academically specialized, and students end up knowing far too much about far too narrow a subject. He believes the system will eventually collapse under its own weight.

TAYLOR: When students are paying $200,000 for a college education and only 19 percent of graduating seniors are going to have jobs, people are going to ask whether it is worth that kind of money.

He says curriculums should be multi-disciplinary and should change with the changing needs of the society.

Karin Fischer at the Chronicle of Higher Education sees some of that happening already. Popular new majors include public health and sustainability.

KARIN FISCHER: Some of these majors were really there in response to the needs of the business community.

Like Service Science. The goal? To spur innovation in service industries. Health IT and computational science are also trendy.

But Fischer's co-author David Glenn isn't convinced Philosophy or English majors are doomed. He says what business needs in a rapidly changing economy is critical thinking skills.

DAVID GLENN: And you can pick up those skills in a humanities major as well as you could in a vocational major like business.

Who knows, perhaps reading Marx prepares you better for a career in customer service than majoring in service science.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.
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Being able to think critically and communicate effectively are 'portable skills'. If you specialize in some trendy specialty & the trend goes away, what have you got to show for your education investment. Educating the person, & not just the employee-to-be, pays better dividends- especially in the long run.

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This is a timely story about higher education because there are seismic shifts going on exactly in the areas that Mark Taylor is talking about. For example, at my university I am heading up a 10-year initiative to help faculty explicitly teach the critical thinking skills embedded in their discipline no matter what the content is. Also: we are working on a new undergraduate requirement in which all students would have to apply their skills to a "real world" context before they graduate. We are not alone in these efforts. Higher ed is responding to changes in our rapdily shifting "knowledge economy," and many schools are out front in this effort. Check us out: www.louisville.edu/ideastoaction

I take offense to Mr. Ryssdal classifying biology as a "stand-by" major. There is a competitive market in research and medicine for biologists willing to put forth the effort to attain an advanced degree. But perhaps it's the culture of college-age young adults to want immediate satisfaction of a job straight out of college.

I disagree with the notion that liberal arts schools should hand over its academic standards to the business community and forced students to take vocational programs because "everyone's doing it." If you want to take a vocational degree that is affiliated with making money in the free market, a technical community college or a technical four year school is your best bet; otherwise, if you want to take a typical liberal arts educational major such as history, political science, art history, philosophy etc., then you should keep your foot in the door with a general liberal arts school or any community college that offers a college of liberal arts program, aimed at transfer credits to any four year college in any state in the union. I can tell you that liberal arts schools are not going to bend over at the hands of free market conservatives that previously gotten into this economic mess in the first place. Liberal arts education means that you are given a broaden sense of the world with critical thinking skills, not to turn your education into a money making ponzi scheme from the bizzaro world of Ayn Rand.

By the way, the last several US Presidents except for Eisenhower and Truman had liberal arts majors from college.

The Educated Citizen and Public Health is a nationwide movement that is encouraging the introduction of public health courses in all 4-year and 2-year colleges. The movement is based upon the Association of American Colleges and Universities LEAP initiative's essential learning outcomes. Core "101" curriculum in public health, epidemiology, and global health are recommended along with integrative/ cross disciplinary course work and service-learning as part of minors.

For additional information on undergraduate public health education see the AAC&U web site and their summer issue of Peer Review dedicated to undergraduate public health studies at
www.aacu.org/public_health/index.cfm and

Richard Riegelman MD, PhD
Professor and Founding Dean
George Washington University
School of Public Health and Health Services


I have heard of "what business needs in a rapidly changing economy is critical thinking skills" on multiple occasions over the past number of years. This makes me a bit incredulous. Or what business say they need and really want are not the same thing.

I have an engineering degree and have changed career paths three times, continued education plus have a proven record of creative and utilitarian problem solving. And yet over nearly the past decade I have been without a pay check over 45% of the time. I have looked nationally (US/Can) for new opportunities.

Engineering programs have always been oriented towards the needs of society AND focused on critical thinking. I imagine that most business programs have a similar focus. I'm surprised that practical focus is being presented here as novel and groundbreaking, while these long-established programs received derision as "vocational majors."

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