Who Should Decide Your College Major?

Selecting a major is rarely a linear process. Many students don’t know their strengths, weaknesses, or even interests by the time classes begin, let alone their long-term job prospects. So what if the government wanted to help out with the decision?

Policy makers are exploring several recent proposals to subsidize colleges and universities with federal money on the condition that academic programs better reflect job market trends. Many are advocating incentivize high-demand fields in the wake of the recent financial crisis, skyrocketing tuition bills, and record levels of student debt. This article will explore some of these programs and potential implications for students.

The Role of the American Government

The government itself is a major employer that also drives private sector companies who provide the supplies, tools, and resources enabling the government to function. Throughout history, the government has also played the role of investor in an effort to stimulate job growth.

For example, the New Deal and the programs of the Great Depression helped lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression through massive government expansion and job creation. More recently, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funneled millions of dollars into education and training programs including nearly $4.8 billion in job training, unemployment, and workforce development funds.

This model of government investment in education is used around the world as an economic driver and a catalyst for development. This philosophy has helped many poor and developing countries lift hundreds out of poverty and into the workforce.

The Malaysian government has made education and training a high priority under its five-year development plans. The Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF) is one such example. Launched in 1993, HRDF encourages those in the private sector to upgrade their skills through training and retraining. Eligible employers can contribute to the fund, and in turn apply for grants to defray or subsidize the costs of training their workforce.

The Department of Skills Development (DSD) in the Malaysian government helps public and private education and training institutions evaluate the demand for existing skills and plan for future vocational and industrial training needs.

Focus on education is a key pillar of South Korea’s economic development plan, as well. According to the The Economist, many consider Korean schools to be international leaders of standardized education. The government is now working with businesses to ensure graduate skills and training will lead to high-paying jobs and demand in the labor market.

In fact, former President Lee Myung-bak pressed large Korean firms to align education and training to the needs of their workforce — and many firms have followed his lead. For instance, the large Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Company plans to set up a training institute as an alternative to the university system.

Workforce-based academic programs are nothing new. Community and technical colleges have long been regarded as experts in workforce training by offering programs directed at supplying students with the necessary skills for in-demand fields. Baccalaureate institutions, such as the University of New Mexico, have public-private partnerships to respond to demands in the workforce. An Albuquerque-based company donated $200,000 for a new heating and cooling monitoring system at the mechanical engineering building, which will give students first-hand training and opportunity to learn about and develop new technologies.

There is a difference, however, between offering degrees that reflect job market needs and receiving government funds to stimulate the economy by increasing the number of qualified graduates. Government officials across the country are recognizing the need to address workforce training needs as a means of economic development. In Florida, for instance, the state government already provides more funding to community colleges that place graduates in jobs paying $10 an hour or more.

Government officials in New York state are investing in a new approach to help break stubbornly high unemployment rates. The goal of the recently unveiled $5 million Next Generation NY Job Linkage program is to connect job seekers with the estimated 210,000 positions employers cannot fill due to a lack of skilled workers. Through government grants, the program will work directly with employers by identifying specific jobs and skills and designing appropriate training programs through the New York community college system. Down the road, the state may even make funding contingent upon student job placement.

Louisiana Senate Bill 117 would create a similar alliance between the state education system and the job market. Community colleges with higher graduation rates and programs focusing on the state’s workforce needs would receive more funds. Colleges with more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs would also be rewarded with more cash. The state’s workforce needs would be determined by a board of state officials comprised of individuals like the chairman of the Louisiana Workforce Commission and the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development.

The level to which government should intervene or influence academic decisions is hotly debated. It may seem simple to just fund STEM fields because they seem to have a higher degree of earning potential. However, there is still a great need for liberal arts degrees and the ability to use ethics and the social sciences to solve some of the worlds biggest problems.

In fact, liberal arts degrees are often a preferred pathway to rewarding careers in high-income fields such as health care. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), medical schools accepted 43 percent of the biological sciences majors, 47 percent of physical sciences majors, 51 percent of humanities majors, and 45 percent of social sciences majors who applied in 2010 — demonstrating the value still placed on liberal arts degrees.

Yet there is a demand for at least some intervention and support from policymakers. Industry leaders such as Boeing are asking for federal dollars to help fill a shortage of highly-trained technical workers, which is threatening their business in the face of growing international competition.

Final Thought

For the vast majority of Americans, academic choices are either directly or indirectly influenced by economic needs and job market trends. This is evident from the prevalence of degrees in traditionally in-demand fields. For example, business degrees are the most popular in the U.S., and similarly the number of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and engineering technologies has increased roughly 20 percent since 2009–2010.

Investing in education and training is a time-tested economic driver, and it’s advantageous for governments to align workforce needs with the programs offered in public education institutions. However, one of the benefits of a strong collegiate system is the freedom of choice — options that provide a means to earn both a living wage across a broad base of academic fields.

As a student, your potential earned income and long-term job prospects should weigh heavily in the decisions you make about majors, degrees and programs. But remember, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, and you should weigh the research with your own personal interests and needs.

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