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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."

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”

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