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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

Updated 52 mins ago - Sports

IOC: Belarus sprinter who sought refuge in Tokyo "safe"

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus in 2019. Photo: Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who sought refuge in Tokyo, is in the care of Japanese authorities and the UN refugee agency is now involved in her case, an International Olympic Committee official told reporters Monday.

The latest: Officials in Poland and the Czech Republic have offered to help the 24-year-old sprinter, who refused national team orders to board a flight home after being taken to Tokyo's Haneda airport Sunday following her criticism of Belarusian coaches, per Reuters

Updated 2 hours ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Team Italy crosses the finish line ahead of American Fred Kerley in the men's 100m final on day nine of the Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

🚨: IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium gesture

🏃🏾: Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs: Reconnecting with U.S. father "gave me the desire to win" Olympic 100m sprint race.

🥇High jumpers persuade Olympic officials to let them share gold

🏌️‍♂️: Golfer Xander Schauffele wins gold for U.S. by one shot

🤸🏿‍♀️: Simone Biles won't compete in Olympic floor finals, individual vault or uneven bars

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Updated 2 hours ago - Sports

IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium gesture

Team USA's Raven Saunders gestures on the podium with her silver medal after competing in the women's shot put event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday. Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee is "looking into" U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders' gesture on the Tokyo Games podium after she won a silver medal, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams told reporters Monday.

Why it matters: Saunders told AP she placed her hands above her head in an "X" formation while on the podium to stand up for "oppressed" people. The IOC has banned protests during the Tokyo Games.

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