Quick! What’s the most common undergraduate degree in America? Graduate degree? The answer to both questions is…Business (2011-12 academic year, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics in the Digest of Education Statistics). Now, what was the answer in 1971? Social and Behavioral Sciences for undergrad (Education was a very close second) and Education by a long shot at the graduate level. Business was nowhere near the top.
For what it’s worth, I’m going to tell you what I think about that, not as an educator (although I’ll accept “damn good teacher,” thank you), not as a sociologist, not as an economist, not as a demographer (all of whom compile statistics and then chew them up and spit them back out into more piles of data), but as a simple career coach who (a) watches the job market closely, (b) tries to interpret data, not just analyze it, (c) is willing to connect dots and tell you what I see, and (d) cares deeply. With that backdrop, I am less than thrilled to file this article today.
Everyone agrees on two grand statements. One, the role of education in 21st century America is in question. Do we educate or train? Do we develop well-rounded, classically educated human beings or offer job training and call it a college degree?
Two, the state of education, by all accounts, is in crisis. While we’re awarding more degrees, we’re lagging in all manner of global competitiveness assessments. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that the U.S., once first in educational attainment (HS diploma or more), is now fifth, and worse, only 21st in student skills, as measured by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Also, according to Global Public Square, the U.S. once led the world in college graduates, but no longer does. Americans age 55 to 64 still have more college degrees per capita (41 percent) than their peers in other nations. However, while that number has flat-lined and is the same for Americans age 25 to 34, 15 nations have pulled ahead in the younger category. Our Gen Y-ers, as it turns out, now rank #16.
This is mortifying from the point of view of this career coach who happens to look at this through a global lens. Bluntly, even though we’re trying to protect American jobs through laws that make it hard (in many cases, impossible) for non-residents to get and keep employment here, by handing degrees to people who can’t perform at the levels today’s globally competitive job market demands, it doesn’t much matter.
Now, up to here, you might already know these statistics. But a more granular inspection leads me to some observations that, as a career coach, I hope will give you pause as you plan your career and even the educational paths and subsequent careers your kids choose. The overarching concern is not how many degrees we’re conferring, but what degrees they are – and what that means.
For every 100 undergraduate degrees issued in 1971 (U.S. population was 208 million), there were 213 in 2012 (population 314 million). In the process, though, degrees in Education dropped from 21.0 percent of all degrees to 5.9 percent, and Social and Behavioral Sciences from 23.0 to 16.1. But degrees in Business rose from 13.7 to 20.5 (this peaked in 1986 at 24.0). Startling!
It’s even more dramatic at the graduate level. For every 100 graduate degrees in 1971, there are now 322. Education was at a dominant 37.2 percent of all Master’s degrees; it is now at 23.6. Business, on the other hand, grew from 11.2 percent to 25.4 percent. And while total graduate degrees jumped by a multiple of 3.22, graduate Business degrees jumped by an eye-opening multiple of 7.23! While all this was going on, here’s what happened in other fields as a percent of total graduate degrees. Humanities, down; Social and Behavioral Sciences, down; Natural Sciences, down; Computer Sciences and Engineering, very slightly up, but down from the 1986 peak.
In other words, everybody’s going to business schools all over the place and (here’s my cents) not necessarily for noble reasons. Many majors in business – economics, finance, accounting – continue to be in the top ten lists for highest paid, the top reason of choice given in many surveys. But I don’t see the state of business, humanity, or world affairs being any better than at any time in the past. And further, I don’t see business degree holders in general presenting much evidence of understanding world events – climate change, poverty, disease eradication, clean water, alliances, migration, innovation, and even education itself – and how (a) these will affect business and (b) how business should take leadership roles in these areas – not from a business point of view, from a humanistic point of view.
Here’s the irony. Science changes the world but not until business says so. As a result, the kinds of decisions that have to be made to elevate humanity, improve quality of life, and save the planet, are likely to be made by generations with narrow focus, limited training, and no grounding in the humanities.
Think that over when planning your career choices or your studies. “Where are we going and why are we going there?” is a legitimate question.
Visit Amdur Coaching: www.amdurcoaching.com