Concerns About Job Market Lead Students to STEM Majors

February 25, 2014 4:25 am0 comments



On the left, a rendering of the $2 Billion Cornell NYC Tech campus, which seeks to create a city hub for innovation in engineering and applied sciences. On the right, a rendering of Klarman Hall, a $61 Million building that is intended to increase the visibility and presence of the humanities on campus.

Advocates for the humanities have expressed concerns in the past few years about the looming threats to humanities majors in the U.S. — ranging from general concerns about high unemployment rates for humanities graduates to a recent 2013 Congressional proposal to cut 50 percent from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cornell, too, seemed to feel the impact in 2011, when the number of degrees awarded in the humanities plummeted.

Since 2003, the percentage of students with a humanities major in the College of Arts and Sciences fluctuated between 35 to 41 percent, before dropping to 31 percent in 2011. Since then, the percentage of students with a humanities major increased by one percentage point for the Class of 2013.

Meanwhile the number of students with a major in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics field has steadily increased in the last decade, according to figures provided by the University Registrar.

The dip in the number of humanities majors in 2011 may have been partially due to job market concerns, since the decline was correlated with the economic downturn of that occurred in late 2008 — around the time that the Class of 2011 began to declare their majors — according to Tricia Barry, director of communications in the College of Arts and Sciences.

There may be a basis for humanities majors’ concerns about unemployment.


“A liberal arts education with a strong foundation in the humanities is the education that best equips you for a changing world.”

— Gretchen Ritter

According to data released by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute last year, the unemployment rate for recent college graduates was highest for anthropology and archaeology majors — at 12.6 percent — while the unemployment rate for other humanities majors, including English, philosophy and history, ranged from 9.5 to 9.8 percent.

In contrast, recent graduates with majors in chemistry faced an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent, while math majors faced an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent and engineering majors had an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent.

But long-term earnings reflect better earning prospects for humanities majors. Although humanities and social sciences majors start out earning 84 percent of what professional and pre-professional majors earn, they begin to out-earn from ages 56 to 60, according to a January report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. STEM majors and Engineering majors still outearn humanities and social sciences majors both in the short run and the long run.

Gretchen Ritter, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that the concerns about the humanities have been exaggerated. Anxieties about the economy have fueled a “narrow, short-term perspective” on careers, she said, citing a recent survey that found that 74 percent of CEOs advocated a liberal arts education.

“A liberal arts education with a strong foundation in the humanities is the education that best equips you for a changing world,” Ritter said.

In contrast to the humanities decline, the number of students in a STEM major increased in the last decade, according to statistics from the University Registrar. In 2013, 38 percent of Arts and Sciences students had a major in STEM-related fields, which was up six percentage points since 2003.

Connor Archard ’15 — who is also a Sun senior photographer — said one of the factors that affected his decision to switch majors from psychology to electrical engineering was concern about his career prospects. When Archard attended an engineering career fair his freshman year, he said he was impressed by the number of opportunities available to engineers.

“It seemed like [engineering students] had a lot of interesting prospects, and I didn’t see any of those for myself,” he said.

According to some students, by increasing resources for career planning, the University could keep more students in the humanities.

Olivia Duell ’14, who is double majoring in English and feminist, gender and sexuality studies, said that while humanities majors are given plenty of academic resources, the college could do more to guide humanities students after graduation.

“It seemed like [engineering students] had a lot of interesting prospects, and I didn’t see any of those for myself.”

— Connor Archard ’15

“It would be so much nicer if [humanities departments] had resources to put current undergraduates in contact with recent alumni for advice,” Duell said. “If this is already a resource, it should be better advertised.”

Archard said Cornell seems to have great resources for students in STEM fields “in terms of getting students to have hands-on experience,” something he said did not seem readily available as a psychology major. Such resources include career fairs geared towards STEM majors — such as the Engineering, Technical and Entrepreneurial career fair — and student project teams in the College of Engineering, which allocates funding and resources to groups of students to pursue their projects of interest.

Ritter, however, said Cornell has not lagged in providing support for humanities or social sciences.

“We have raised $110 million over the last five years for a new humanities building, a faculty hiring initiative and program support, demonstrating the university and alumni community’s strong support for the humanities,” she said.

Meanwhile, advocates of the humanities, including President David Skorton, have brought attention to the most recent threat to humanities funding — Congress’ proposal to slash funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency that is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the U.S., by half.

Skorton told Inside Higher Ed in July that the country is “excessively vocationally oriented” right now and that the proposed bill showed how the National Endowment for the Humanities lacked the lobbying power that other agencies possess.

Skorton went on to defend NEH’s value, saying that the organization’s programs “are preparing people to play critical roles in what’s happening in our society in the 21st century, whether it’s analysts in our intelligence agencies or people who drive innovation in our companies.”

Ritter also said that the humanities have a deeply rooted place in the world.

“The humanities embody the profoundly and inescapably human endeavor to understand ourselves and our place in the cosmos,” she said. “As long as there are humans, there will be a need and a future for the humanities.”

This article is part of a new project called the Daily Sun Dialogues.