Apr 12, 2019 - Economy

Colleges are upending majors

A black and white photo of graduates throwing their caps into the air

Princeton commencement, 1909. Photo: Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images

In 1869, at Harvard, Charles Eliot invented the college major as we know it — each student would be channeled into a specialized area of study, and move on to a stable, lifelong job.

The big picture: A century and a half later, American colleges pump out some 4.5 million new bachelor's degrees every year, but the context — the present and future of work — has changed entirely.

What's happening: The seismic shifts created by frontier technologies are challenging a centuries-old model of higher education — one that is already under siege as the cost of college skyrockets, student debt balloons, and automation eliminates entire careers.

  • Some university majors are aimed at jobs that might not exist any longer in the years and decades ahead.
  • For those jobs that will exist, experts say, the uniquely human skill of problem-solving is essential, rather than a specific major.
  • "The old model of studying one thing is giving way to a need for broadly trained workers," says Darrell West of the Brookings Institution.

Caught in the higher education firestorm is the old system of majors.

  • “The major is an antiquated model,” says David Hollander, a professor at NYU. “It made sense then. It no longer makes sense.”
  • "Students are hedging their bets by having double, or even triple, majors," says Ronald Ehrenberg, a professor at Cornell.

The big picture: As Axios' Kaveh Waddell has reported, a quiet movement is brewing in U.S. high schools to reboot curriculums with the objective of better preparing students for a different future of work. The same is happening at a handful of universities — in this case roiling the traditional major model.

  • Cal State Long Beach has partnered with the Institute for the Future to roll out "Beach 2030" — a plan to ramp up interdisciplinary courses that reflect the fast-changing global landscape, and thus to "build future-ready students."
  • Arizona State University has opened a College of Integrative Arts and Sciences that eliminates academic departments entirely and instead gives out degrees melding disciplines.
  • Concordia University in Montreal has teamed up with five other Canadian universities focused on "skills training" in addition to traditional degrees.
  • Olin College, an engineering school in Massachusetts, has whittled down its offerings to just three majors — specializations much wider in scope than typical programs. For example, one is a design-your-own major.

The movement has its skeptics: Certain majors might need to be spruced up, but the idea of upending the model entirely is dangerous, says Matthew Mayhew, a professor at Ohio State.

  • "There are still tons of people in college who are pre-med or accounting or chemistry majors that are getting jobs and directly applying what they learned in college," Mayhew says. "Let’s not pretend like every major is worthless."

But those challenging majors say the old way has simply become too unwieldy.

  • "A smaller set of majors that are much more broadly defined is the direction we ought to be moving in" says Mark Somerville, Olin's dean of faculty. "When it's hard to predict what the jobs of the next 10 years will be — much less the next 50 years — acquiring the skills necessary to acquire skills is more important than the specifics of any given discipline."
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