Monday, April 18, 2011

Valuing college

Tina Fey, in her prayer for daughters, beseeched her maker thus: "Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance."

Just read today's Room for Debate at the NYT, which is a follow-up to an article from last week questioning the worth of an undergraduate degree in business.

I think it is a question well worth asking. True, we all know people who worked hard at their business degrees and people who lolled away in the liberal arts. The point is that when students undertake a business degree - and 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees in the United States are granted in business - what are their expectations, and are they being met?

When I talk to students, they assume (or at least have parents who assume) that a business degree makes them "more" qualified for employment than, say, a philosophy degree. However, note that one of the bloggers at Room for Debate claims, "if I was an employer who had to choose between a business major and a philosophy major, I'd pick the grad who could write well, and I know who that would likely be."

So, I hope that a dialogue on the worth of a business major inspires students and parents to rethink the value of, say, a major in Spanish or Asian studies or, God forbid, anthropology.

More important, a dialogue on the value of higher education ought to inspire colleges and universities to consider where they place (or misplace) their values. For example, UNLV will be cutting faculty in programs like anthropology and philosophy, U Albany eliminating entire programs in classics, languages, and theater.

What worries me is what happens if / when fields of study like theater or philosophy or anthropology become areas accessible only at wealthy and elite college and universities? Will we be creating even greater inequalities?

My advisees in anthropology often describe "educating" their parents, relatives, and friends on how and why they think anthropology is, in fact, "worth" majoring in - however, I am pleased also at how many students also tell me that their parents tell them that it matters less what they study than that they do well at it. This is what I plan to tell Beanie and Bubbie.

Unless they tell me that they plan to major in business. Then I just might have to badger them into comparative literature or art history.

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