03/26/2013 08:33 pm ET Updated May 26, 2013

Are Career-oriented Majors a Waste of a 4-Year Higher Education?

Even as President Obama, a handful of governors, and several private foundations continue to push American higher education to graduate more students so that the United States has the world's highest portion of people with college credentials, a sobering report recently in The New York Times detailed the real-world impact of producing more degrees simply to reach a goal. The article looked at degree inflation in Atlanta and the proliferation in that city of college-educated workers who hold low-paying jobs that, just a few years ago, didn't require degrees.

The piece, which generated more than a thousand comments from readers, quoted mostly graduates of regional public universities in Georgia and for-profit colleges. It illustrated that, despite the rhetoric from those advocating more "high-quality postsecondary credentials," we have come to think of this national goal as just about four-year degrees and have clearly not defined what we mean by quality credentials.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not in the camp of the "Don't Go to College" crowd that is popular in some circles these days. But without high-quality training and apprenticeship programs as real alternatives to those ill-suited for college -- at least, college immediately after high school -- many higher-education institutions have become de facto job-training centers, and high-priced ones at that.

Indeed, training students seems to keep some traditional colleges in business, as they turn the latest hot career fields into the newest college majors. Colleges, particularly four-year institutions, have marketed their practical academic programs in a way to raise demand for more of them. Since 2000, the overall number of academic programs at colleges and universities has grown by 21 percent, according to figures the U.S. Education Department tracks for various surveys.

One-third of those new programs in the last decade were added in just two broad fields: health professions (where credential inflation is rampant) and military technologies/applied sciences (probably a reaction to the 9/11 attacks). The 1990s saw similar growth in the number of majors. Indeed, nearly four in 10 majors in the Education Department data didn't exist in 1990.

Any of us would recognize those new majors by just glancing at the list of undergraduate programs at almost any college these days: sustainability, athletic training, sports management, new media, gaming, homeland security, and so on. This trend, which has persisted for five decades, has been bemoaned by some as a flight from the arts and sciences to the practical arts.

The number of bachelor's degrees awarded in traditional arts-and-sciences fields (English, mathematics, and biology, for example) has tumbled from almost half of the undergraduate credentials awarded in 1968 to 26 percent in 2010. A majority of credentials today are conferred in occupational or vocational areas, such as business, education, and communications. The most popular undergraduate major is business.

Since 2006, first-year students have told researchers that the No. 1 reason to attend college is to "get a better job." That's largely the reason many four-year colleges are adding narrowly tailored majors as fast as they can.

But despite having majored in the latest career fields, it seems that some graduates of those programs are finding it difficult to land a job (a few of the people quoted in the Times story had narrow majors). Maybe that's why colleges don't want to be measured by how well they place students in jobs.

Meanwhile, top business executives in various surveys and interviews say they like workers who are creative, are adaptable, and have the ability to communicate and think critically -- all telltale signs of a classic liberal education.

We know the future economy needs more Americans with a high-quality education after high school. But that training comes in many forms. Several four-year colleges operate co-op programs coupled with a liberal education, for example, preparing their graduates to launch their careers. A handful of professional majors at four-year institutions, engineering and nursing, for instance, are packed with intensive courses.

There is certainly a place for purely practical training programs within our broader goal to be first in the world in an educated work force, but the question increasingly should be whether all of those programs need to be housed at expensive four-year colleges.

Jeff Selingo is editor at large at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the forthcoming book, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, scheduled for release on May 7.

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