New college majors for changing needs

College students in classroom.

TEXT OF STORY

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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