“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of ships — and shoes — and future employment
And of student debt — and promising careers —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether we may have lost our wings.” — Adapted from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”
Former Princeton literature professor Louis Menand comments that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to “expose future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.” Traditionally, students are motivated to attend four-year liberal arts colleges for the intellectual purview, but rising higher education costs in the United States have transformed the college experience into a form of vocational training rather than one of enlightenment.
According to the College Board, in 1976, the average total cost for tuition, room, and board at private nonprofit colleges was $16,760 (in 2016 dollars) and $8,160 at four-year public colleges. Fast forward to 2016, and average private education cost has almost tripled to $45,370, while the cost of public college has ballooned to $20,090.
Along with this increase in education costs, there has been an equally conspicuous change in the types of college majors students are choosing to study. Statistician Nate Silver’s blog “FiveThirtyEight” quantified this change: “In 2011, 3.1 percent of new bachelor’s degrees were in English language or literature. That figure is down from … 4.7 percent 20 years ago, and 7.6 percent 40 years ago.” Meanwhile, there has been an increase in professions believed to be more financially lucrative. Silver continues, “those [majors] associated with relatively specific post-college careers … has roughly doubled since 1991.”
Business and other vocational majors, such as criminal justice and health-related professions, have experienced a similar increase. To pay off college tuition costs, students feel obliged to choose vocational majors over traditional liberal arts degrees such as English literature, math, or history. For many, the rising cost of a college education has reduced the college experience to a financial investment.
Even at Princeton, an institution that prides itself on being a bastion of intellectual elitism, with distribution requirements encouraging students to dabble in various fields, there still remains a push toward the most financially profitable professions. Currently, the top three most popular concentrations at the University are computer science, the Wilson School, and economics.
The question remains: why is this wrong? Shouldn’t students seek majors that offer the highest chances of making the most money? If that were true, then why even bother with the veneer of offering courses in the liberal arts? Since the first universities in medieval Europe, higher education has been a force for cultural and societal enlightenment. Vocational training may supply a society with a needed workforce; however, it will not produce the scholars, thinkers, and inventors that are truly needed to propel a society forward.
While a traditional liberal arts education is intellectually uplifting, another may ask: Is it worthwhile considering the jobs required today? A student who studies a vocational profession, such as accounting or nursing, may get a higher-paying job straight out of college. However, if and when that job is overtaken by technology or its demand decreases, the graduate will find it hard to replace his job with an equal. A liberal-arts graduate, on the other hand, who possesses the ability to analyze a variety of situations, will have a much easier time adapting to fluctuations in the job market.
The rising costs of higher education continues to push higher education institutions toward becoming vocational apparatuses. More and more, students are graduating with majors tailored to a specific career, such as nursing, criminal justice, or computer science. While these majors promise financial attainment, they work to raise a generation that values financial success and stability over intellectual thought — a generation that will be unready for a tumultuous world ahead of them.
Daniel Yassky is a first-year student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.