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Lessons for liberal arts majors from recent UW grads

By EMILY JASHINSKY

After four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition, I graduated in the spring of 2015 with a degree in political science. Thankfully, I am debt-free and employed in a relevant field of work. However, a recent survey of University of Wisconsin-Madison liberal arts graduates shows that is not the case for more than one-third of them.

According to an Oct. 7 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “65% of recent graduates who are working full time have jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree.” Read another way, that means over a third of recent graduates of the College of Letters and Sciences (the liberal arts school) at Wisconsin’s premier public university are not working in jobs that require their degrees.

Even by midcareer, nearly one in four UW liberal arts graduates were in jobs that did not require a degree.

Nearly 36% of graduates working full time responded that their degrees were not required for their positions, with nearly 10% admitting their degrees were “irrelevant.”

Of the 2012-’13 graduates who were not employed when the survey was conducted during the 2014-’15 academic year, 26.2% had not found a job since graduating, 5.1% were laid off and 20.5% quit a job to seek other employment.

There’s more.

Only 53% of liberal arts graduates who are working full time, if given the chance to “start over” at UW, would choose to pursue the same major.

So nearly half of UW-Madison liberal arts graduates regret spending four years and tens of thousands of dollars on their major?

It’s certainly understandable that college students would experiment with their fields of study, but that percentage should be a call to action by parents and administrators.

We need to know why nearly half of liberal arts graduates from our state’s top university regret the way they spent their money.

Could it be, perhaps, that their deep understanding of obscure feminist theories on post-modern French art is not useful in the real world? Are no companies hiring graduates who specialize in analyzing depictions of race and gender in Tarantino’s early work?

While there’s nothing wrong with students pursuing their passions, it appears many would have appreciated some advice early in their college years about whether their interests have any real-world utility.

After college, those two don’t always overlap.

“We need more welders and less philosophers,” declared Sen. Marco Rubio during the Nov. 10 Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre.

Certainly, there’s no reason to expect many would-be philosophy majors will opt out of college to become welders. But maybe, if they knew how many graduates regret pursuing their liberal arts degrees, some would-be philosophy majors would choose engineering instead.

If they only knew, maybe some English, history, religion or communications majors would have skipped higher education altogether. Maybe, just maybe, more students and families would be spending money on degrees that translate into practical, real-world application.

So here’s some friendly advice from a recent graduate: Instead of majoring in communications, major in journalism. Instead of psychology, consider early childhood education or social work. If possible, graduate with a degree in a skill, not a broad subject.

Investing tens of thousands of dollars in a world-class education should bear fruit for more than 65% of graduates.

There are important lessons for incoming college students to be found in the UW survey. Nearly 36% of liberal arts graduates learned the hard way that their $50,000 investment bought them what turned out to be a useless degree. Incoming college students should heed the warnings from the experiences of that 36% and consider different choices.

Emily Jashinsky of Delafield graduated this year from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She was an intern at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in 2014. This column reflects her personal opinion.

 

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