Whenever college loans come up, whether it’s pop artists paying off fans’ loans or a student loan provider facing $12 billion in loans disappearing off the books, there’s always somebody checking in with that hoary chestnut of “What did all these kids getting those useless English degrees from Harvard expect?” Well, probably not much, since somebody’s checked the receipts and discovered that, in fact, not many people are getting English degrees!
FiveThirtyEight decided to look at what #Millennials are actually majoring in, and the overwhelming favorites are “useful” degrees like business, health care, and biomedical science in state schools. Less than one percent of college students attend Ivy League schools in the first place, so the “six figure theater degree from Harvard” is a rare beast indeed. It turns out the vast majority of people going to college are choosing majors to get a degree and get to work:
Career-focused majors — such as business, education and journalism — are more prevalent at less selective schools than at top-tier schools. Education ranks as the fifth most popular major at less selective schools but is the 21st most popular major at the most selective schools. Other vocation-specific majors such as law enforcement are also more popular at less selective schools. In total, more than half of students at less selective schools major in career-focused subjects; at elite schools, less than a quarter of students do so.
Business, by the way, is nearly 20% of all degrees from “less selective schools.” There are nearly twice as many business students as people studying to become nurses and doctors, in fact.
One point that stands out is that in what they call more selective schools, there’s an expectation of going on to graduate school, and that most of the attendees have the ability to cover the costs of those degrees in the first place. Nearly forty percent of Harvard’s underclassmen don’t need financial aid, and Harvard costs $63,000 a year. So what about all those “useless” degrees? Even at the more selective colleges, they don’t even kiss six percent of graduates: Just 5.6% of “more selective” schools had students studying visual or performing arts, for example, and the English degree that supposedly means you’re jobless? Just 3.5%. English doesn’t even rank in the top ten of “less selective schools.”
To illustrate what that means, there are about 20 million college students in the US, so about two million go to the Ivy League. Of those, just 3.5% are getting an English degree, so, roughly, 70,000 people at any given time are supposedly wasting their student loans or their parents’ cash on an English degree. Seems like the amount of comedy it’s generated might be disproportional.
The entire reason the “English degree” is trotted out is an attempt to belittle higher education — that dumb kids are making frivolous choices instead of being hardheaded and practical. But, as we can see from the numbers here, the real face of student debt in America is the people who are crunching the numbers, writing the computer code, and taking care of us in the hospital. And we should likely shift our view of student debt accordingly.