How students perceive the purpose of college has changed.
It may be a result of economic determination, or possibly insecurity instilled by the 2008 financial crisis, but many of today’s students tend to view a college education solely as the key to a high-paying job.
And since the mid-’90s, Silicon Valley in sunny California has been identified as a hotbed for financial and professional success.
That could explain why more and more students are majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and degrees awarded in humanities have declined 20 percent since 2006.
But contrary to popular belief, a STEM degree isn’t the only way to a good job, and the best path to personal career success is still carved by personal interests.
While there are many benefits to growing a society well-versed in STEM, professors and scholars around the country want to preserve the valuable lessons learned through literature, philosophy and the arts.
Need for diverse skills
Focusing solely on a specific skill set can limit personal and financial opportunities.
Adding a touch of humanities to an education can equip students with a diverse set of tools, which can be used across many job fields — even in Silicon Valley.
“If you are a humanities major, you learn how to make arguments, how to write, how to think clearly, how to structure presentations and how to do all kinds of things that employers need desperately,” said Blakey Vermeule, a professor of English at Stanford University.
“I think what we are seeing from some of the Silicon Valley companies, that they tell us over and over again, is that humanities majors are in very high demand,” she continued. “They need people who can communicate, write, think and make complex arguments.”
Concentrating every ounce of time and energy on one straight career path is a common way for students to reach for success, but it can make them dangerously one-dimensional.
Although it is important to consider immediate employment opportunities while in college, students need to understand that interests can change, and college is better used as a time to explore personal curiosities.
“There is often not a straight line through a career path the way that there is in childhood,” said Vermeule.
“When you’re a kid or a young person you think ‘Oh, there is a path and i’ve got to get on it’,” she explained. “Actually, by the time you reach middle age, you realize there isn’t really a path. There are many types of branching and forking paths through employment, and college is just one step along the way.”
Job fields can evolve just as quickly as personal interests. Developing a versatile skill set while in college can help students adapt to changes.
STEM jobs and the abilities required for them are rapidly evolving, so workers in STEM need to always be furthering their education to keep up with their job requirements. As a result, more than half of those who major in STEM fields end up in an unrelated job.
Let curiosity lead
Instead of entering college with a focus on finances, students need to follow their curiosity. Passion will equip students with the drive to excel personally and financially.
“What makes college so unique is not that it trains you for any particular employment or job, because it really doesn’t,” said Vermeule.
“What college does, and what it is for, is for you to read, think and experience as many broadly different perspectives as possible. That includes studying abroad and reading as broadly as you can.”
But all these things cost money, and it is undeniable that the price of college has skyrocketed in recent years, limiting the number of people who can attend college and crippling many of those who do.
The high costs have instilled in students and parents the need to see a return on their investment. The return, however, is not guaranteed by a degree in STEM, and students are likely to find the most effective personal and financial gains by following their passion.
“I, personally, don’t really think it matters as much what you major in in college,” said Vermeule. “I don’t think that is as important as the benefits of just following your curiosity down any rabbit hole that it takes you.”
“There is a whole wealth of very fascinating information and things to learn about out there, and I think that the more people restrict themselves to certain specializations, the less they are able to let their curiosity go where it leads them,” she continued.
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.