Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Most Desperately Needed Degree Program

This morning I stumbled across an article on Yahoo! Eduction with the provocative title "College Majors That Are Useless". Curiosity made me look at the article. What I saw made me double down on my morning coffee intake, since I assumed my brain was not yet functioning.

Two disclaimers are warranted. First, my majors were mathematics and mathematics (with a little statistics in between), so I have no personal attachment to the listed majors. Second, and somewhat contrary, I've spent almost 39 years at Michigan State University (the former Michigan Agricultural College), a land-grant institution with a very strong College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) and a respected agricultural extension service. While we are a typical, well-rounded university (strong in physics, education and a variety of other fields), we're very proud here of both our land-grant tradition and our strength in agricultural fields. (Note to snobs: Cornell University is another land-grant university.)

CANR is not hurting for majors, and I have not heard of any problems with placement of those majors, so I was rather shocked to see that the first, fourth and fifth "most useless" majors (agriculture, animal science and horticulture) all came from their domain. As a sidebar, we also offer the other two listed majors, apparel design and theater, albeit in different colleges. The article cites the "National Association of Colleges and Employers' (NACE) 2012 Job Outlook study", which is free to members (whoever they may be), and which apparently "surveyed almost 1,000 employers on their future hiring plans". Our library system does not have it, so I can comment on neither their methods of data acquisition and analysis nor the accuracy with which their findings were reported in the article. Naturally, that won't stop me from commenting on the article itself.

First, as a colleague pointed out to me, the article states that 24,988 agriculture degrees (baccalaureate? all levels?) were awarded (in the United States?) in 2008-2009. Amazingly, again according to the article, 24,988 horticulture degrees were awarded that same year.  (I should have gone to commencement exercises. Do you suppose that the two majors paraded together in pairs, as if boarding the ark?) The article reports 89,140 degrees awarded in fashion design that year, which in another coincidence is exactly the number of theater degrees awarded.  Two cosmic coincidences in the same article ... I wonder what the probability of that is?

For what it's worth, the article cites the source of the degree counts as The Daily Beast's list of "20 Most Useless Degrees". The first "useless degree" cited on that list, in what I consider to be a multilayered bit of irony (and with an apology to yet more of my colleagues), is journalism.

Second, referring to the NACE study, the article states that "[m]any areas of study, such as fashion design and the performing arts, didn't even make the list". Does this mean that two of the five "useless" majors were designated that way because there was little or no data in the study on them?  The article does quote job growth or decline projections for all five majors, including fashion design and theater, obtained from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Third, the criterion of "uselessness" of a major is not clearly spelled out in the article. From the focus on numbers of jobs and projected trends in those numbers, I infer that "uselessness" relates in some way to job prospects.  Operations researchers know that if you are going to develop a normative model, you need to define your criterion or criteria carefully.  This is what drove me to blog about the article: not just that the criterion is at best implicitly specified, but that it is not tied to the data in any logical way that I can see.

Is a major "useless" if the number of related jobs is declining?  That is suggested in the discussion of agriculture, the first (and therefore most?) "useless" major on the list. "... That means less [sic] jobs. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor projects 64,000 fewer jobs in this field over the next seven years."  Okay, then why is theater (with projected job growth of 11% in the same time frame) third on the list of "useless" majors.

Is "uselessness" based on a glut of applicants?  You might speculate that from the inclusion of fashion design, where the government says there were 22,700 jobs in 2008 (with a projected 1% growth over the next seven years) and the article claims that 89,140 students (all with a dual major in theater?) graduated with degrees.  That would be rather scary if the only relevant job for someone with a fashion or apparel design degree were as a fashion designer (and assuming that fashion designers had a projected career span of more than three months).  My impression, though, is that retail chains like to hire fashion/apparel design majors as buyers, because they bring an understanding of the product to their work.  Similarly, agriculture majors are in demand for more than managing farms; food safety inspectors, sales representatives and marketers for firms selling agricultural equipment or products, buyers for grocery chains etc. may all benefit from that degree.  In any case, if the ratio of jobs to graduates is the concern (and I assume that jobs here include occupied positions, not just open positions), then agriculture (25,000 degrees in '08-'09 versus 1,234,000 "agricultural managers" in 2008) would seem to be a pretty appealing choice.  That's roughly one graduate for every 49 positions, which would be about replacement rate if you assumed 2% turnover per year.  For comparison purposes, if you ran a company with a fixed number of positions, and your employees stayed for life and retired after an average of 40 years on the job, that would be 2.5% turnover.  (By the way, in an article full of statistical "coincidences", I have to look at the first four digits of "1,234,000" and wonder if that's another one.)

I've ranted long enough, so let's just conclude this with two thoughts.  The first is that I am, shall we say, unpersuaded by the article.  The second, referring back to the title of this post, and tying into recent posts by Mike Trick and others, is that if I were trying to devise a new college major today, based on need, it would be titled something like "journalistic analytics", and it would focus not on parsing server logs at a site like the Daily Beast but rather on how to draw and present meaningful conclusions from the analysis of data.


  1. The "rant" does not take into account the 20 million, experienced, idle workers who obtain every new job that is available. The older group of prior graduates fails to take into account fundamental changes in society over the past 40 years. Earning a degree has not had an impact on employability in over 15 years. Consequently the specific degree is a moot point. For each and every job opening there are literally thousands of new job seekers without the minimum ten years prerequisite job experience at multiple companies. Amongst those with the ten years, their are hundreds for each job opening. Therefore "uselessness" is a self-evident term, i.e., no opportunity equals uselessness. The current graduates are seeking jobs that are not available to them in any way.

    1. I'm willing to believe that in many cases new graduates are losing job opportunities to laid off workers with more experience. My guess is that in other instances laid off workers are watching new grads take jobs they might covet, were it not for the fact that what is a pay boost to a new grad looks like a pay cut to someone previously employed for a decade or so. Meanwhile, somewhat paradoxically, there are open positions going unfilled, or being filled by foreign nationals brought in on H1B visas, not because the jobs are too menial, dangerous or low-paying but because the employers cannot find qualified applicants.

      When I was a kid, a college degree (baccalaureate) was somewhat special, a ticket to a higher-paying job, not just a ticket to an entry-level job. Graduate degrees were even rarer. High school diplomas, possibly enhanced by some job training or an apprenticeship in a craft, got you decent jobs. During my teaching career, I complained to colleagues that the BA/BS was becoming what the high school diploma once was, and the MA/MS was becoming what the BA/BS had been. I stand by that, but I think the perception of what a BA/BS is worth has lagged behind the evolving reality ... which makes the current unfortunate job prospects for college grads that much worse. (Also, they're burdened with considerably more debt than previous generations, further exacerbating the problem.)

      I don't think bachelor's degrees are useless, though. You have to take a somewhat longer term view. The economy will eventually turn around (it always does), and when that happens employers will start hiring more workers -- but in many cases they will still require a bachelor's degree as an entry level credential. So the degree may not pay off the day after graduation, but it will eventually.

      I think it would be a good idea if we stopped thinking that way and started pushing associate's degrees or other credentials as a respectable route to a good job; but I don't see that happening any time soon.

  2. The article that you cited and Evans' response to you were both concise and to the point, even despite some errors in numbers. Your blog post and your response to Evans seemed unfocused and unnecessarily long.

    If 830 of 1000 employers surveyed will recruit business majors and 600 of 1000 will recruit accounting and computer science majors, then we can take that as strong evidence that those degrees are marketable.

    If we see that agriculture/horticulture are shrinking fields and that animal science is a small field, then we can conclude that those are a big gamble for prospective degree holders.

    If we were to look at the educational backgrounds of the most successful actors, we would find that many didn't go to college. Some started before they were even old enough to have attended college.

    Some factors that affect a degree's usefulness:

    -Supply and demand, growth and size of a field versus number of potential applicants
    -Specificity of a degree
    -Advantage of having a particular degree versus not having it
    -Transferability of degree among possible careers and industries
    -Advancement potential
    -Financial viability of degree, starting salary, mid-career salary
    -Minimal experience required for entry level

    An aspiring actor who hasn't hit the big time by his thirties or forties might need to seek out a practical field of study (business perhaps) if waiting tables isn't working out either.

    On the other hand, comedy genius Bob Newhart started out as an accountant and ended up with two long-running prime-time TV shows.

    1. I agree with your list of factors that affect the value of a degree, assuming that "financial viability" includes the cost of obtaining the degree as well as post-graduate salary. Your assessment that agriculture, horticulture and animal science are "big gamble[s]" is shakier, as it presumes in the first two cases that demand is shrinking faster than supply and in the third case that "small field" implies lack of opportunity. (The field variously known as analytics, data science or, in some quarters, operations research is small but with burgeoning demand.)

      I think you are making an implicit assumption about the proportion of theater majors who seek a career as actors that may not be warranted. My impression is that a nontrivial proportion of theater majors anticipate careers as playwrights, directors, costumers, set designers, coaches, cinematographers, etc.

    2. The cost of a degree will tend to be small compared to lifetime earnings, but there is growing evidence that some degree holders do no better than high school graduates in terms of salary (300,000+ waitstaff with bachelor's degrees.)

      The BLS projects a drop of about 100,000 in employment in Agricultural Management between 2010 and 2020, from about 1.2 million to 1.1 million. Perhaps 40,000 will retire from the field each year. However, this is a job that has generally been held by high school graduates, which might continue to be the case. If a college grad who majored in this can't find a job in the field, he might find that his skills and knowledge will not be applicable to other jobs. At least the high school grads would not have spent four years and tens of thousands in tuition.

      Animal science looks better in terms of percentage of growth, but the employment numbers are still very small. The skills associated with the degree might not be very transferable. Small or shrinking job market + non-transferable skills = bad choice.

      There is no need to exclude the directors and writers and it was wrong of you to assume that I was doing so. One of the more famous and successful directors of recent times, James Cameron, appears to be a high school graduate with a year or two of college (and not in theater) but no degree, according to Wiki. A good writer can learn much of what he needs to know in high school. Can we assume that most theater degree holders can dispense with those table-waiting gigs?

    3. The fact that James Cameron lacks a college degree tells me that it's possible to be a (very) successful director without one. It tells me nothing about what proportion of successful directors lack degrees, nor what the likelihood is of an arbitrary person without a degree succeeding (relative to the likelihood of an arbitrary person with a degree). Bill Gates didn't finish his degree at Harvard but did rather well for himself in software. I'm not sure that indicates that jobs in software development and marketing (or other tech sectors) don't require degrees.

      There are also a lot of jobs that require a college degree (whether they should or not is a different discussion) but do not require a specific degree. So a horticulture major is probably no better equipped than most to land one of those jobs but arguably no worse equipped. If the student likes horticulture, why not pick it as a major?

      More pertinently, what major should the student pick (given that he or she is headed off to a non-specific job in some unknown business)? Would the major you choose be able to accommodate all the students that would be routed to it if we discouraged them from picking majors like horticulture?

  3. According to the BLS there are ~122,000 producers and directors in the US, of which maybe a few dozen or a few hundred are well-known or very successful. Gathering and tabulating data on the much larger number of obscure directors (average salary: <$70K/year) in order to come up with a typical educational profile would be a daunting task.

    A better way of approaching the issue would be to see what percentage of film grads actually end up working in the industry. This number is very small. Most such grads appear to end up in jobs that don't require a film degree or even any degree at all. The "book learning" that a film degree might provide probably doesn't need to be learned in college, and is only part of the puzzle for an aspiring director.

    A horticulture major is unlikely to land a job as an accountant or a computer programmer, unless he somehow managed to "minor" in accounting, or gained extensive programming experience in pursuit of his horticulture degree (likely or unlikely?) In general, employers are much more disposed to hire BBA, math and CS grads for those jobs. The vast majority wouldn't know what to do with a horticulture grad, and any horticulture grad who could convince a "non-horticulture" business to hire him for a decent-paying "non-horticulture" job, if it comes to that, would have been better served by studying something else in college. An accountant who starts at $50K/year can probably find time to take up horticulture as a hobby, if he is really that interested in horticulture.

    The question of what a student should pick should obviously be based on who is actually hiring which grads with what degrees, tempered with supply vs demand considerations, IOW avoid overcrowded fields and, related to that, starting/median salaries. Business, most engineering, math, nursing and possibly CS seem to have been good fields for bachelor's degree holders over the last few decades.

    There are currently many more business grads than horticulture grads, yet the job market seems to have been better able to absorb the business grads. The business grads often have relatively high-level skills that are widely useful to many more employers than are the more specialized and less generally useful skills of a horticulturalist.

    The danger for a horticulture grad is that if he doesn't find a job in horticulture he is rather likely to end up in some dead-end, low-paying job. If he does find a job in horticulture, he might find that his salary is really no better than that of a high school grad. His degree would have turned out to be useless in either case.


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