Monday, September 21, 2009

A Decline in College Education

Data, I often wish, was recorded more thoroughly and comprehensively in the past. It wasn't until after WWII that the government decided to start regularly and consistently start recording various economic data, but the sheer amount of insight and information we could have gotten had we say started recording not just economic data, but other data as well, going back as far as say 1900 would have made us immeasurably better off today.

Regardless, despite the lack of historical data we have, you can already start seeing the empirical evidence of the country slowly collapsing in some time series as short as just 10 years. Specifically in education.

I went to the OECD, much like I do going to my local bar, and knew precisely the data I wanted to get. The OECD is like a spoiled suburbanite princess. She has the money/data you want/need, but to get it takes a tremendous amount of patience to get at it in that they've organized their databases with the efficiency and logic that Obama has reorganized health care. Inevitably, I did find the data I was looking for and it was college majors by subject over time.

I wanted to get this data because I was curious to see, in general, what the trend was in terms of students majoring in something worthwhile vs. majoring with worthless "El Crapo Studies" such as philosophy, art, sociology, etc. Readers of my blog fully well know just how much importance I place on this particular issue, but for those who are new, in short it is engineers, doctors, computer folk and in general the physical science majors that are the ones who produce and make this nation go, and the others are just spoiled brats majoring in a hobby who prefer not to do any real work whilst they live off of mommy and daddy. And looking at the trend between these two general types of majors, one can get an idea of what the future productivity of this nation will be.

The news (of course) is not good;

Though there does not seem to be any rapid increase or decrease, or discernible trend in general, understand this is only 10 years worth of data. Things such as major types, don't change dramatically like say the president's approval ratings (ha ha ha). HOwever if you look at the details, there are trends and if these trends continue over time, it will not bode well for the nation.

First and foremost I took the "sciences." This is all majors in the physical sciences;

Biology, physics, math, etc.

This has gone from 9.2% of all majors to 8.9% of all majors. Not a dramatic, but a general downward trend.

Then there is engineering (engineering was a separate sub category from "science" and includes chemical, electrical, civil, etc. as well as construction). This has sacrificed a full percentage point in the past 10 years going from 7% of all majors to just 6%.

Now there were other minor categories that I did deem "worthwhile" majors that actually result in a graduate who is capable and likely to contribute to society such as accounting, but the amount of time it would take to pull that data from the OECD was not worth it. The larger point is that in general fewer and fewer students are majoring in something that is worth the tuition they (and the taxpayer) are paying for.

I then took a look at the Arts and Humanities. Again a general encompassing topic that covers philosophy majors and sculpture majors, etc., and not only do these worthless majors account for MORE THAN TWICE THE NUMBER OF ENGINEERING MAJORS, their ranks are growing quite rapidly going from 14% of majors in 1998 to over 15.5% now.

But the worst is yet to come. Separately categorized from Arts and Humanities (and is just one major I focused on) was "Social Services." Though a small major with only 1.16% of the total student population, the relative percent majoring in this field shot up by about a third to 1.43% of majors today.

Now I am getting old and I frankly do not have time to put this kindly or politically correct-like. So let me spell it out for you in a very inconsiderate, uncompassionate, my-goodness-he-didn't-take-sensitivity-training-like-we-all-did-back-in-grade-school kind of way;

Young Americans are spoiled rotten. And not only are they spoiled rotten, they've been brought up poorly by their parents and the schools in that when they graduate from high school, they are actually led to believe that they can major in a worthless subject like the arts and humanities and somehow become a contributing members of society. They are not told the realities of the labor market, guidance counselors provide NOTHING in terms of guiding these kids into real studies that will get them real jobs, and when they grow up, not only will we have failed at our job as adults preparing them for the real world, they will;

1. Not be producing members of society
2. Will more likely than not require the dwindling supply of engineering majors to pay for them in one way or another.
3. Will vote NOT for policies that will help boost economic productivity, but instead will vote for the redistribution of what dwindling production there is (because again, we've not only failed at educating them about the basics of the labor market, but have woefully educated them about basic, simple, elementary economics)

Now I'm done with the "don't hurt little Junior's feelings. He wants to become a musician and we parents are going to be supportive of that." BS. People need to wake up and accept the harsh realities of life. Ergo, let me tell you a little story of this Iranian father I knew.

I was semi-dating his daughter. She was majoring in Middle Eastern studies (because apparently she didn't learn enough Farsi or enough about Iranian culture when she LIVED THERE FOR 20 YEARS!). She was complaining about how her "mean" father wouldn't pay her way through college. I said, "Well, why doesn't he pay your way through college?"

She said, "Well he WAS paying my way through when I was majoring in chemistry, but since I switched to Middle Eastern studies he said he wouldn't pay."

Sadly not only she, but most American parents today, don't realize just how much he loved his daughter.

POST POST - Got some requests for more detail on the data, which can be located here. As you can see they do allow you to look it up by country and detail it by "general" major and then a "specific" major. Beyond that I don't know how they threw, say "graphic arts" into one category or the next. Welcome to my world of "How the Hell Did the OECD Categorize This?"


Anonymous said...

Did the data break out the majors by nationality? In a lot of the engineering & sciences departments, there are more than singular percentages of exceptionally talented Indian, Asian, and middle eastern students. I wonder if the prospect is even bleaker than your graph shows because the exchange students are being lumped in with the residents.

As a student 20+ years ago, my math & science courses were full of exchange students, whereas the required humanties courses were always dominated w/ the sorority/fraternity types.

Anonymous said...

More than you would ever know.

Daniel said...

Heya cap, long time reader first time poster here. Had a question in regards to arts & humanities vs. engineering. To my understanding something like "graphic arts" or "graphic design" is technically an arts major, but these days it's almost more of a specialized computer science major than an arts major. How does the OECD classify it? And what's your opinion of it in terms of being an economically productive skill to acquire?

Bruce said...

Cap'n, I have a few comments, and maybe some will possibly make you feel a tiny bit better.

I've been watching these trends and data for over 30 years (I'm a chemical engineer, with a strong interest in politics, statistics, and the education system). The number of engineering grads hasn't dropped over the years; in fact it might be up ever so slightly. I could dig thru the data (available as salary survey info from all the major engineering societies) if it would make you feel better. The issue that "society" has developed the expectation that everyone has to go to college. Until a little after WWII, almost no one went to college except rich people's kids, and kids who were determined enough to work their way through - so they usually majored in engineering, physical science, maybe accounting (although that was a trade, not a profession), education (teachers or "normal" school - a 1 to 2 year degree), or whatever it took to get into medical or law school. 50 years before that, even law and medicine were more like apprenticeships, and you could by a degree.

The GI bill opened up a lot of new opportunities, and it was often a good thing. College grads got the best jobs, even if the degree was in history or philosophy. Then the government got more involved in the public ed system, and we got multiple "councilors" in the schools with good paying jobs and important sounding titles, and more government money for the district if they had more councilors. Councilors had the job of "guiding" the kiddies in high school, but they only knew what they saw on TV or in the neighborhood or in their own lives. So they counseled the kids to get a degree, and become a doctor (too hard), lawyer (every school has a program now!), a teacher, a counselor (social science, social worker), or a manager at McDonalds. They had heard of engineers, accountants or scientists, but don't know what they do, and the ones they saw at school weren't at the parties, and everyone made fun of them - so don't do that!

Then we elected politicians because they made it so that it was easier to get into and "pay for" school, and then the schools had to come up with programs that those who would have been laborers in the past could/would pass so that the school could get more money from the government, and add faculty to remedial programs that made school more costly. Note that science and engineering schools get funding to study things for industry, and the psych and history department couldn't get any of that because it was focused, so the government had to take from those who had and give to those who didn't deserve because they "need it". So, society is doing it to itself, but, because engineers are born to it (it's a calling - you have no choice), they continue to forge ahead. But it is a losing battle in the long run - the ignorati will continue to have disproportionate sway, because this is a "democracy".

Milton Hayek said...

Daniel, just because you use computers doesn't make it a computer science degree, not by a longshot (a VERY LONG longshot). Graphic artists don't study calculus and linear algebra and discrete mathematical structures, or artificial intelligence or machine language or any of the things that make computer science computer science. Computer science is applied mathematics.

Below that is computer programming/software engineering, less emphasis on theory and more emphasis on existing technology.

Below that is IT/information sciences. Basically, doing unchallenging scripting and programming things like databases and simple software for simple needs. Virtually no math involved. The most low-ranking of these jobs are the ones getting outsourced en masse.

And somewhere far below this is basic scripting, things like HTML and maybe writing simple plug-ins for PhotoShop or 3DS Max. The better graphic arts schools might teach this.

FWIW, I'm a college student and future computer engineering major. Computer *engineers* as opposed to computer scientists or software engineers design hardware systems. They are electrical engineers who specialize in digital logic systems. 3D graphics cards? Computer engineers. Microprocessors? Computer engineers. Virgins who get boners by doing calculus? Computer engineers.

Daniel said...

Milton, are we including the people that design graphics software in the first place? And/or the people that optimize games, for instance, on specific hardware (such as working with concurrency issues on the PS3)?

CBMTTek said...


I fully agree with your assessment, with a few comments I would like to toss in.

First, there is some value to things like Middle Eastern studies, same with history, arts, etc... The problem with majoring in those fields is that the graduates think they deserve jobs that pay as much, if not more, then the fields that actually produce something. While there may be a justification for a professor of African American Studies, there is little justification for dozens of Masters graduates in the field every year.

Second thing I would like to add is that this trend has been going in for at least two to three generations. I saw it in high school all of 30 years ago. "Do what you love, and the money will follow." "lifelong happiness is having a job you enjoy." Took two years of Communication Arts under that philosophy, and decided to move over to engineering because I wanted a job when I graduated.

If you are really doing what you love, it would be called a hobby, and you would be paying for the privilege. There is a reason why the sciences pay better then the arts, and it is because it is hard, and sometimes tedious work. That's why you get paid to do it.

Chris said...

While I agree that science, medicine and engineering are all important parts of the economy, I think you're perhaps neglecting to examine graduates with societally useful degress such as Commerce, Accounting, Law etc. You seem to be neglecting that a product needs to be "brought to market" as opposed to simply existing in a vacuum. The corporation is really the mode through which any significant enterprise is conducted these days and absent managers, lawyers and accountants they don't exist. As much there are many ridiculous corporate welfare cases and slackers populating the corporate ranks, they do remain the most effective means of mobilizing private wealth for economic acitivity.

CBMTTek said...


You are correct, but if you think about it, the successful marketing, advertising, etc... people are the ones that understand the value of the numbers, and know how to use and analyze them.

Marketing is how many of these products can I expect to sell? Why? To who? How quickly? What is the return on investment? Break even pricing? Tidy profit pricing?

Advertising is not just catchy slogans, and women in bikinis. It is study groups, focusing on the primary market (requiring some marketing people for that), analysis of response to ads, statistical probability of ads being seen, etc... Build your advertising strategy incorrectly, and you will not get the contract.

The people that think marketing is about reading Glamour magazine and shopping for the latest trends usually end up working in McDonalds.

Anonymous said...

It's only a staff editorial in a student newspaper---it would be funny if they weren't so serious.

"Career fair needs to include left out liberal arts majors"

I particularly enjoy how the editorial blames the Career Fair and the Career Services Center for not providing opportunities for liberal arts majors. Classic.

Milton Hayek said...

Daniel, those are software engineers, and for people working in graphics software, the math is significantly more rigorous than most software engineering. Low-level assembly programming on video game consoles is also a hardcore high-tech field (the problem is that you invest a lot of human capital in skills that may go obsolete when the next generation comes along, but there are no solutions, only tradeoffs).

People using the software and writing basic plug-ins and scripts merely have dashboard knowledge. The software engineers who have knowledge of matrix transformations, linear algebra, discrete mathematical structures, algorithms, data structures, etc., are software engineers and would have majored in either computer science or computer engineering, or possibly math or physics. Lower-level "IT" or "information sciences" degrees and the like typically aren't mathematically rigorous enough for that type of programming.

And graphic arts majors are light years away from it.

flash said...

Yes! you are right day by day education graph is falling now we need to take stand if we want to save our future generations.

community college said...

The graph tells lots of things about course

software systems design said...

Map Describes lot of things!!

Ryan said...

if we can surpass or eliminate the industrialized mindset that the educational system has been built upon since the nineteenth century, we might once again realize the true nature of education – the acquisition of knowledge and/or the skills needed for the betterment of our self and our society. As it stands now, the method of education is built upon a hierarchical system; the most useful subjects for work and those which will amass the most wealth are emphasized over all else. President Obama's latest plea for education reform brought the call for an increase in funding for math and sciences; granted this will provide our country with the necessary skills to better compete internationally in an increasingly technologically focused world. However, what this call lacks is an emphasis on the cultivation of critical thinking found in the humanities. The academic disciplines of philosophy, literature, history, and the arts which have, for centuries, been key to the progression of our civilization are becoming merely supplementary to the single narrow-minded approach towards the expansion of capital. This is most troubling because what we are taught is indefinitely what we become; in affect as humans, we are more nurture than nature.

The problem that persists is that our industrial society marginalizes the system of education so much so, that the only education worth valuing is one which affects the bottom line. A mold has been cast whereby “success” in terms of an individuals education is measured not by knowledge attained but by the calculable results. Without the humanities, students are taught to simply task instead of analyze; to ask how and to never question why. The American educational system is effectively producing a nation of employees, who are eager to earn a vocational skill to achieve a certain lifestyle, instead of becoming critically thinking citizens.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the fall in engineering students in the listed disciplines is bigger than what is shown.

A large number of computer engineers will be graduating these days, whereas the disciplie was very rare indeed at the start of that graph. The inflow of an entire extra discipline of engineering could easily mask a bigger fall in the other discipiles.