Did you major in underwater basket weaving? That old joke about some college majors being far too niche to ever prove useful is not quite as ridiculous as it once seemed.
As jobs in the world’s workforce become increasingly specialized, higher education—which, from the start, has always reflected of the demands of the economy—is racing to keep up. One way it’s doing this is by offering increasingly specialized college majors, in addition to degrees in venerable subjects like history and art.
These newer programs are quickly gaining in popularity, according to a recently released report (pdf) from the World Economic Forum and LinkedIn. Researchers from both entities examined just how much the degrees pursued by recent college graduates differ from those of previous generations. The data, which is based on the stated college degree of hundreds of millions of LinkedIn members across the world, is not perfectly representative of the world’s college-educated population because the US and young people are overrepresented, but it reflects general trends.
It shows a noticeable decline in the traditionally “popular” areas of study that older generations favored. Among the 10 degrees that have recorded the largest decline in interest over the decades are history, mathematics, and chemistry. History—the discipline that has seen the greatest fall—is the 8th most popular degree amongst LinkedIn members aged 55 or above, but only 18th among those aged 25 to 34. (The data may look different in a few years, though; there are signs yet that the contentious administration of Donald Trump may be revitalizing the history degree.)
In contrast, per the report, specialized and career-specific degrees are the ones that have seen the biggest rise in popularity. Subjects like information technology, computer science, international business, and media are all much more common among younger college graduates than older ones.
While specialization may seem like a good thing—college students learning specific skills to match the exacting requirements of many of today’s jobs—researchers are worried that degrees focused only on certain types of work may in fact be detrimental to young workers.
“There is a real concern that these labor-market-oriented degrees that focus on specific technical skills are not as durable,” says Guy Berger, a LinkedIn economist and one of the researchers who worked on the report. Berger believes that “cross-functional skills” like management and analytical know-how are more adaptable across a range of work environments. As technology changes the nature of work across nearly every industry, it’s important to have a wide range of such talents, rather than a narrow subset applied only to a particular sector that may not look the same in the near future (or, indeed, exist at all).
It is undeniable that a university diploma is now all but mandatory for American workers’ financial stability. Yet the costs of a college education add up; several dozen US universities now charge upward of $250,000 for a degree. With such steep bills to pay, it’s worth taking a moment to reconsider the value of a trusty old, generalized liberal arts degree.
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