A thoughtful young professorial colleague of mine bitterly denounced business schools in a conversation with me last week, suggesting that they promote a vocational orientation to college that is excessive and unhealthy. Colleges, when they evolved in colonial America, were designed to promote virtue, religion and morality, and later that evolved to include a sense of civic consciousness—an obligation to serve one’s fellow citizens admirably. Others have looked at colleges as a device designed to realize the American Dream, promoting inter-generational income mobility. Among some today, these non-vocational purposes of higher education still resonate. Nonetheless, new college students routinely state that the primary purpose of college is getting a job, so not surprisingly one of the modern trends is the rise in the importance of majors in business-related areas at the expense of majors in the humanities and some social sciences.
Yet the Cadillac or BMW of collegiate business education has long been the M.B.A. degree, and for years wannabe business tycoons have eagerly sought the M.B.A. credential and the six-digit salaries associated with that degree, often obtained after working several years after the bachelor’s degree. In recent years, however, the traditional two-year M.B.A. has become a slightly tarnished degree, with some major programs such as the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois announcing the end of their residential M.B.A. program. Even the most prestigious national programs such as Harvard’s, Penn’s Wharton School, etc., have seen a decline in applications. Meanwhile, of course, the number of students getting degrees in such traditional liberal arts fields as history, philosophy, English literature, etc., is also stagnant or declining, with those earning Ph.D.s often ending up in wildly unrelated vocations (e.g., tree removal) upon completion of schooling.
Several factors are at work here. With respect to business education, many students are doing online M.B.A.s to save some money and maintain the ability to work at least part-time while studying, and others are getting new degrees in subjects like data analytics or financial economics that provide training for responsible business positions but are less a generalist degree than the M.B.A. However, a number of majors that are neither business nor arts and sciences have boomed in modern times, such as in communications, healthcare-related fields, or even parks and recreation.
My colleague’s lament is relevant, however. Increasingly, kids look at colleges as sort of a sophisticated form of vocational education that once was a staple of many high schools. You go to college to get training preparing you to do some marketable skill. Even 50 or 60 years ago, studies in the sciences and engineering were considered appropriate college subjects and that training prepared persons for jobs. And many persons seem to accept the appropriateness of significant colleges training students in a few technical subjects such as accountancy or actuarial science. In the fine arts, degrees in music or theater have long led, with considerably less success, to fulfilling vocational aspirations. And a sizable number of students have historically attended education schools to prepare them to teach. But a large portion of students majored in subjects they knew would not directly prepare them for jobs—history, philosophy, English literature, sociology, political science, and so forth: the liberal arts.
Data I have observed on post-graduate earnings suggest two things. First, an awful lot of human capital is formed on the job—mid-career workers earn dramatically more than new college graduates in large part from the knowledge specific to their occupation gained from many years of working. Learning by doing is substantial and important. Second, while there are dramatic differences for new graduates in earnings by major, many persons studying subjects such as philosophy that are largely devoid of any direct vocational relevance do pretty well financially in the long run, because they gain needed critical reasoning, writing and other skills associated with a college education. As I recount in my new book Restoring the Promise, mid-career earnings of philosophers are over double early career earnings, and those mid-career philosophy majors average higher earnings than those whose major was “general business.” While it is true that “college majors matter,” it is distinctly not true that “college majors alone matter” in determining vocational success.