Legislators pressure schools to expand STEM at the expense of liberal arts

Liberal arts advocates say the humanities can help students be competitive in the workforce

States are increasingly rewarding institutions for promoting majors in STEM fields, often while disparaging the liberal arts, Patricia Cohen reports for the New York Times

Lawmakers question value of a liberal arts education

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has been particularly outspoken about putting STEM before liberal arts in higher education. After announcing his spending plan last month, Bevin said, "All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they're just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be."

Articulating the value of a liberal arts education

A number of Republican lawmakers have also portrayed liberal arts education as unnecessary or impractical. While Democrats have been less critical of the humanities, they tend to agree that education should lead to more lucrative job prospects.

The recently released College Scorecard rates U.S. colleges and universities on measures such as completion rates, student loan debt, and post-graduation earnings. Many states already use performance-based goals that more closely link higher education funding to certain outcomes such as degrees earned.

It's not all about the money

A salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that new STEM graduates are expected to earn the highest overall average salaries in 2016, with new engineers expected to earn nearly $65,000 annually. Most of the top earners in the liberal arts, though, will only earn as much as the bottom rung of those in STEM graduates, with some earning even less than those with vocational skills.

However, money should not be the main driving factor in one's education, humanities advocates argue, and students have much to gain from the liberal arts.

Humanities professors have taken particular offense to Bevin's remarks, such as Jeffrey Peters, a professor of French literature at the University of Kentucky. In a January op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader, Peters noted that Bevin received a degree in Japanese and East Asian studies from Washington and Lee University, a liberal arts institution.

Critics of prioritizing STEM education fear that cutting liberal arts funding while adding incentives for STEM majors at public institutions will only make the humanities more exclusive and costly to pursue. There are also concerns about allowing the government to essentially decide who fails and who succeeds in the workforce.

"The problem is that education is now the principal determinant of earnings, and we pay no attention to it at all," says Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce. "That's gone too far."   

Instead, he says, students should receive comprehensive information about employment and earnings prospects before they choose a major to make the best decision.

Employers aren't necessarily looking for skills solely related to STEM, either. 

White paper: Turning students into T-shaped professionals

Debra Humphreys, a senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, notes that employers are not as concerned with individual majors as they are analytical, communication, and problem-solving skills—all of which an education in the humanities fosters.

"A lot of the feedback we get from employers is not only about the necessity of technical skills, but the soft skills as well—the ability to think creatively, to work in groups, things that you traditionally get in the liberal arts," says Russ Deaton, interim executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. "It's not as simple as STEM is valued and worthy of incentives and everything else is not" (Cohen, New York Times, 2/21).

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