The Studying Gap

The recession and the endlessly escalating cost of college have, rightly, put a bit more emphasis on the fact that higher education is heterogeneous and students should probably try to study something worthwhile. Unfortunately, I think people sometimes misunderstand what is and isn’t a worthwhile program of study. This chart from Kay Steiger is probably a good place to start:

People, I believe, intuit that the STEM fields are good majors. But I think that’s not just, or even primarily, because of their intrinsic merits. The fact that these programs are hard and the people in them tend to spend a lot of time studying is an important part of the story. By contrast, majoring in “business” sounds very practical-minded to a lot of people. After all, how could a business degree not be more valuable than some nonsense like philosophy? That’s one of the reasons why it’s become the most popular major by far. But business majors aren’t actually doing anything! Not surprisingly, in exchange for doing less work than people in other majors, business majors also learn less.

None of that’s to say that there’s anything wrong with business (or education) as a subject to study. But a good starting point for colleges across the country would be to say that if they have degree-granting programs that don’t seem to require the students to do any work, they’re probably doing something wrong. Meanwhile, I worry that in some respects we’re probably undershooting arts/humanities education as a country. For people who are good at it, the ability to create objects of aesthetic merit is incredibly valuable and this is a domain where we show no little sign of making progress with automation.