June 16, 2024

What Are the Best College Degrees to Pursue?

mind gears
Posted for Southern Maryland Higher Education Center
Pax Leader II
by Mel Powell, Executive Director, SMHEC

mind gearsBeyond the general agreement that higher education adds value to a civil and industrially developed society, to the development and well being of individuals with college backgrounds and to the economic and social growth of a community and nation, there is also the role of research universities in the predominance of America in technological advancements.  In addition, there are continuing and on-going discussions about the “best” goals of higher education, about what kinds of higher education provide competitive economic and social advantage to the nation.

Generally, there are two distinct theories of the “kind” of higher education that best meets the needs of a nation facing increasing global competition in the market place, and the needs of students who want to succeed, and to make a difference in a changing new century.

One theory supports the view that the liberal arts provide the intellectual skills needed by problem solvers who will also have advantages in continuing their learning and development, particularly at the undergraduate level.  A second theory argues that the high cost of higher education, together with the needs for specialized education in a technologically driven society, requires the development of highly focused skills and knowledge in college education, applied to the benefit of new employers immediately upon a graduate’s arrival in a new job.

Flexible Intellectual Tools or Specialized Training:  The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) champions the value of a liberal education and supports the view that in today’s changing economy, narrow specialization condemns America’s economy to inflexibility, and correspondingly, the liberal arts provide flexible intellectual tools to future problem solvers, who will be better equipped to continue learning over time.

When President Obama and the Secretary of the Department of Education Arne Duncan talk about how higher education is the key to the future of the American economy, one can argue that they are not talking about the liberal arts.  As work becomes more high-tech, employers demand more people with specialized training.  The need for specialization by employers also explains the explosion in professional master’s programs. There are now well over a hundred master’s degrees available, in fields from Avian Medicine to Web Design and Homeland Security.

However, arguments about the kind of higher education needed is generally focused on undergraduate students rather on student’s in master’s programs.  But regardless of education level, in terms of numbers, the great majority of degree programs are in specialized fields.

Commitment to Both Theories: A lot of confusion in this discussion is caused by the fact that since the end of World War II, American higher education has been committed to both theories: higher education focusing on liberal arts, and higher education with a focus on professional fields. The system is designed to be both meritocratic (based on ability and achievement) and egalitarian (democratic and open). Graduate college programs and employers were left to depend on the growing complement of Post WW II colleges in America to sort out each cohort as it passes into the workforce, while elected officials talk about the importance of college education for everyone. State higher education plans consistently focus on accessibility to college for all Americans.  But Society also wants students to study hard and deserve the grades they receive.

In 1948, through the exertions of people like James Bryant Conant, then President of Harvard, the Educational Testing Service went into business, and standardized testing (the S.A.T. and the A.C.T.) soon became the universal method for picking out the most intelligent students in the high-school population, regardless of their family wealth or education level, and getting them into college.

As work becomes more high-tech, more complex, more demanding of specific skills, the more employers demand and get more people with specialized training. It also explains the explosion in professional master’s programs. As mentioned above, there are now well over a hundred master’s degrees available.   There are approximately 14 times as many master’s degrees awarded each year as doctorates.

The specialization phase that  began after World War II has lasted to today. Large new populations have been entering the higher education system: the veterans who attended on the G.I. Bill (2.2 million of them between 1944 and 1956 alone). Then the great expansion of the 1960’s when the baby boomers entered and enrollments doubled. Then co-education, when virtually every all-male college began accepting women. Finally, in the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a period of racial diversification and an expansion of minority students in higher education.

Making it in America: The post-WWII students did not regard college as a finishing school.  In pre-WW II days, college may have been a gate through which only the favored could pass. Then the gates opened to veterans, to first generation college education students, to women, to non-whites who had either been segregated or under-represented, and to the Dream generation as in Maryland after the 2012 election where  children of immigrants who came to the United States can now afford to go to college while paying in-state tuition.   College to these students is the key to making it in America, not only financially, but socially.

A Seat for Virtually Everyone:  As access to college expanded, there was a tremendous expansion of the number of colleges in America, reaching over 4,495 four-and two-year institutions (2,774 4-year institutions and 1,721 2-year institutions).

Seven per cent of the American population is currently enrolled in college (two or four year institutions) or in graduate school (21,016,126 in 2010). In Great Britain and France, the figure is about three per cent of the population. About 14.6 million of these students are enrolled full-time.  There is now a seat for virtually any American with a high-school diploma who wants to attend college.

The City University of New York, by example, has 270,000 degree-credit students at 23 campuses, and another 273,000 continuing education and professional school students.  Another large system at a state level, The State of California, has 3.3 million undergraduate students in 23 state universities , 10 research universities (through doctorates and professional schools), and 120 community colleges.

College is Broadly Accessible: 68 percent of high-school graduates now enter a college program (in 1980, only 49 percent did), and employers continue to give preferences to graduates with a college credential.

College is Broadly Rewarding: In 2008, the average income for someone with an advanced degree (master’s, professional, or doctoral) was $83,144.  In 2010, someone with a bachelor’s degree earned $58,613; and for someone with only a high-school education, $31,283.

Are “All” College Students Benefiting from Their Education?  Notwithstanding the social rewards of a college education, there is concern in the higher education community that perhaps half of the number of college graduates do not have sufficient skill levels or advanced knowledge that will permit them to obtain jobs requiring a college education.  According to several recent university surveys, unemployed or underemployed college graduates range from 44.4 percent to 54.6 percent of graduates.  Many may not have acquired analytical skills while in college, or simply were underperformers while in college, and consequently are unprepared for jobs in today’s competitive economy.

Increasing Numbers of International Students:  There is also increasing global demand for American-style higher education. Students all over the world want to come here, and some American universities are building campuses overseas. Higher education is widely regarded in developed and developing cultures as the route to a better life. In 2010-2012, international students in American colleges reached a new high, at 723,277, with China sending the largest number, 157,588, followed by India with 103,895.  While their numbers are only about 3 percent of students in American colleges, the more interesting fact is that many of these non-resident alien students are in STEM fields of education, particularly at the graduate level, and concurrently they are a growing percentage of graduates in graduate STEM research fields.

Declining Numbers of American Students in STEM Programs:  According to a recent report by the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States, in 1977 82 percent of doctoral degrees were awarded in the U.S. to U.S. citizens; however, this figure had fallen to 57 percent by 2007.  Also of possibly great significance, the proportion of engineering students has declined significantly (29 percent in 2007, down from 56 percent in 1977); and physical sciences is also in a downward trend (43 percent, down from 76 percent); and doctoral degrees awarded to citizens have shown even sharper declines.

Increasing Competition Internationally in STEM Fields:  The recent call for concern regarding international competition was the 2005 Report by the National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm:Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, that indicated that the U.S. ranks 27th out of 29 wealthy countries in the proportion of college students with degrees in science or engineering.  The World Economic Forum ranked the United States 48th out of 133 developed and developing nations in the quality of mathematics and science instruction.

Declining Interest in STEM Degrees:  According to the National Science Board, fewer than 300,000 college students selected STEM majors in 2010, and only about 167,000 were expected to earn STEM degrees by 2011. Studies have found that approximately 40 percent of college freshman planning to pursue STEM majors will have changed their majors to non-STEM fields by their senior year.

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