Mitt Romney was an English major.
So was filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, was a philosophy major, as were composer Philip Glass and investor Carl Icahn.
Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, majored in the classics.
And, of course, none of them are lifting the couch cushions looking for pennies to pay the light bill. Nor are they spending their days scratching their chins over Sartre or Nietzsche or pondering the lesser works of Chaucer.
Your choice of a major in college is not necessarily predictive of what your career path will be or your earning potential. How we fare once final exams are done and the last notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” fade away is determined by a wide number of variables, from individual ambition to simple good fortune.
But some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing measures that would require colleges and universities to tell students what they will likely earn and what their job prospects will be if they choose certain majors. This is a bad idea. Aside from placing yet another regulatory burden on institutions of higher learning – and perhaps leading to increases in tuition in order to meet it – it also reduces higher education to a mere transaction or commodity, not a ground where intellectual life can be enhanced or creativity unlocked.
The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate last year under the sponsorship of Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida’s junior senator and one of the GOP’s rising stars, would require states to collect data on salaries by major and the likelihood of getting a job upon graduation. Supporters contend students should have a clear-eyed understanding of how much “return” they can expect for their time in the classroom and the thousands of dollars they have forked over for tuition and other costs. Moreover, they say the federal government has a vested interest in knowing the size of graduates’ paychecks since they are footing some of the bill through loans that are federally insured and grants.
U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got behind the effort in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month: “Suppose colleges provided prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major. What if parents had access to clear and understandable breakdowns between academic studies and amenities?”
The concerns about post-undergraduate earning potential are understandable, especially in light of the fact that many students have to wrestle with mortgage-sized debt loads before they’ve even sent out the first resume. But information on employment and earning potential by major is widely available. Chances are, students are already in the know by the time they’ve sent their admission applications, thanks to parents, high school guidance counselors or the bumper crop of information that’s available on the Internet.
The proposal also is reductive. Preparing students for the workforce is a purpose of an undergraduate education, but not its sole purpose. The best academic programs can allow students to broaden their worldview, deepen their thinking and become more sophisticated participants in our civic life and culture.
So philosophy majors should feel free to dig in to Plato, Camus and Rousseau without anyone attempting to dissuade them. They may or may not strike it rich as a result, but they will almost assuredly become richer human beings.