Nobody has better framed the difficulty of a tough choice than Robert Frost. “Two woods diverged in a yellow wood,” he began in “The Road Not Taken.” He concluded, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Our choices don’t always narrow to two. But for decades America’s colleges have had to walk a fine line between offering vocational majors that train students for their first jobs as grads and offering liberal-arts majors that seek to educate the “whole person.”

The dilemma dates from at least 1862, when President Lincoln signed the first Morrill Act, which gave 17.4 million acres to the states. They were to sell the land to raise funds to launch programs in agriculture (vocational). Higher education till then had been largely liberal arts, seeking mastery of Greek, Latin, science, the arts and humanities.

Students face a similar dilemma, between vocational majors (engineering, journalism, education) and liberal-arts majors (history, philosophy, English). Do they major in a program promising a high starting salary or in an area in which the student is interested?

This dilemma was on the agenda of the trustees of the University of Maine System last week when they examined programs recommended for elimination or review due to the low number of majors who graduate. They are looking at 34 such programs.

Among the 34 were 16 liberal arts (French, Spanish, English/creative writing) and eight vocational (education programs, etc.) that are “on report” and will have to justify their continuation in the face of low enrollment. The other 10 were sent for review mostly because while popular (computer science, etc.) they may need streamlining.

The trustees and the system are considering trashing twice more liberal arts programs than vocational. If they were to trash the 24 programs “on report,” they would have responded to these materialistic times. The vocational majors would be winning out.

But hold on a minute. Maybe it isn’t that the vocational grads rake in the bucks while the liberal arts grads flip burgers. According to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, liberal arts majors by their mid-50s are making more money than those in professional fields. And they have comparable rates of employment, both groups in the high 90s. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a million people with humanities degrees work in management and about 600,000 work in business.

There’s “a myth out there that somehow, if you major in humanities, you’re doomed to be unemployed for the rest of your life,” said Debra Humphreys, a co-author of the report. She called the journey to success “more of a marathon than a sprint.”

At peak earning ages (56-60), graduates with a bachelor’s degree in humanities or social sciences are making $40,000 more than they earned as new graduates (21-25). Just after graduation, they earned $5,000 less a year than grads of professional or pre-professional programs, but by mid-life, they earned $2,000 more. Over a career, it may be a wash.

Breaking down all the categories of degrees and programs gets tricky, and it is tough to compare people with advanced degrees to those with only bachelors’. Suffice it to say that an advanced degree improves earning power, in any field.

The report also points out one area in which humanities and social science majors beat everyone else. They meet employers’ needs and expectations. Employers say they want people who have broad knowledge and can solve problems in teams, can communicate and can think critically, the very skills emphasized by liberal arts colleges and programs.

Liberal arts grads “own the argument about general skill,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

A few majors might straddle liberal arts and vocational training. When I taught at the University of Maine, some journalism majors who took courses I taught wound up in fields quite different from journalism. At least two became lawyers, and one of them told me he majored in journalism to learn how to work with words. One retired two years ago as a general in the Air Force. Another retired last month as director of the Maine Golf Association. All needed language skills for their careers. Some who pursued the newspaper dream have retired or left the field.

At UMaine, the Department of Journalism and Broadcasting had seven professors and 450 students who majored in journalism or, in the case of freshmen, marked journalism as their most likely choice of major. In talking with my 65 advisees, I learned that quite a few felt pressured by their parents to take a vocational major. Math-phobic students found journalism was about the only vocational major that didn’t involve a lot of math.

Problem. We had more majors in 1981 than Maine had jobs in journalism. If everyone went for a media job, many would be left out. There are a lot fewer journalism jobs now.

We wanted our students to know about the world on which they would be reporting. I chaired the curriculum committee which voted to require budding scribes to take courses in economics, history, the arts, literature/philosophy, physical sciences and the like.

UMaine has melded our department into a new Department of Communication and Journalism. I don’t know how much of our core curriculum survived the meld.

With the 34 program reviews on the table, the university system’s trustees will decide the course of courses, vocational or liberal arts. I find the notion appealing that even grads with vocational or professional degrees should be educated as well as trained.

Bob Neal taught journalism for five years. His degrees are in political science, and he never took a journalism class. He suspects that the best journalists learned on the job.

 

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