01/31/2012 12:32 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

Don't Blame Liberal Arts Majors for High Unemployment

Virginia Postrel recently wrote a piece at that is an important addition to current discussions about higher education. Postrel wrote her article in response to critics of higher education who argue that unemployment rates for recent college graduates (namely, liberal arts and humanities majors) justify a cutoff of student loan funding for such majors. One of the critics Postrel mentions, Bill Frezza, decided to target art history majors as the focus of his criticisms.

Now, I'm not a fan of the current student loan system. I've written about the issue of student loan debt and the negative effects of high student loan debt on college graduates. There are others who have written on the topic as well and I suggest that anyone interested in this subject spend some time looking at the public policy questions that are at issue here, such as in those discussed in this Rortybomb piece from a few months ago.

But Postrel is correct when she says that:

There's nothing like a bunch of unemployed recent college graduates to bring out the central planner in parent-aged pundits.

While college students should take hiring practicalities into consideration in picking their majors, the idea that unemployment among recent college graduates is primarily a function of their choice of major is simply not true and the idea that over-education leads to unemployment isn't supported by the facts.

First of all, college graduates in general have a lower unemployment rate than non-college graduates. While this doesn't argue against the need for more vocational and technical training opportunities for young people (and I strongly support the expansion of such training opportunities) it does undermine claims that there may not be a college premium anymore in the job market. Further, while unemployment rates for recent liberal arts graduates are slightly higher than those in business or engineering, the gap is not vast and frankly one would think the gap to be greater because business and engineering are touted as the prime "practical" degrees. (Has there ever been a time when it was thought that someone with a B.A. in philosophy has the same job prospects as someone with a B.B.A. in finance?) In fact, according to the Georgetown report that is linked in the previous sentence, the degree with the worst recent unemployment problem is architecture, which is a pre-professional degree.

Also, as Postrel points out, most college students seek out pre-professional, job-oriented majors "and art history majors are so rare they're lost in the noise." Whatever one can say about art history or gender studies majors, they aren't a large part of the college student pool and they certainly aren't a prime driver of college graduate unemployment. To claim otherwise might say more about the cultural or ideological assumptions of the person making the claim than the apparent facts.

None of this minimizes the issue of student loan debt and how it is a strain on both the lives of those who graduate as debtors and on the general economy. But going for a sort of central planning in which the government picks the winners for funding of college majors isn't the right solution. The fact that the Frezza article mentions the education policies of the People's Republic of China as an inspiration doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

One way to bring market discipline into this equation is simple -- allow student loan debt to be dischargeable in bankruptcy, after a waiting period (perhaps five or seven years) to prevent people from racking up huge debts for degrees in lucrative fields and then declaring strategic bankruptcy. The Rortybomb article I cite above goes into detail about this and how it would simply be a return to the manner student loan debt was handled for decades. Allowing bankruptcy would make lenders look at individual debtors and make decisions on whether to fund their debt, rather than using the very blunt instrument of government selection of entire majors to support or not support as the tool to handle this issue. Central planning doesn't have a good track record when it comes to determining how millions of people should live their lives and I don't see any reason to think that it would be a good tool for determining what majors should receive student loan funding. One can definitely argue that the existence of federally-backed student loan debt creates market distortions and maybe we would be better off without it. I wouldn't agree with that, but if we are going to have federally-backed student loan debt, turning it into an even bigger social engineering tool is an even more distortive act.

I would agree, however, that it's probably not a good idea for a student to rack up six figures of student loan debt to get a degree in an interesting but generally not lucrative humanities field from a middle-tier private liberal arts college. But that's not where most student loan debt is coming from. For one thing, most college students go to public universities where one can get a great education at a lower cost.

Furthermore, public universities have created innovative programs in recent decades to create an environment in which liberal arts and humanities majors can thrive and not feel lost in massive survey classes. There's been an expansion of excellent honors colleges at state universities all over the country and students at such honors colleges can get a liberal arts college environment at a state university price, especially in-state students. This is an avenue for students who want to study whatever they want to have an opportunity to do so without incurring massive debt. And if students go to honors colleges at schools like the University of Oklahoma or Louisiana State University, they can read Aristotle during the week and go see top-ranked football teams on the weekend. Try doing that at an expensive New England liberal arts college.

I suggest that exposure to a liberal arts and humanities education is good for all who engage in such study, regardless of what they eventually choose to do with their lives. Such an education is in many ways the most traditional form of education. The purpose of a liberal arts and humanities education is to teach young people how to think critically and become thoughtful citizens, separate from any particular job preparation that may develop. There's nothing wrong with studying engineering or finance. Our society needs people who excel at both. But we also need historians, poets and writers in our society and an appreciation for such work among the general public. Let's not allow current economic travails to pull American higher education even further away from encouraging learning for its own sake in favor of simple job training. While there's plenty of room to improve higher education in the United States, attacking and defunding the liberal arts and humanities isn't the way to improve higher education and it certainly isn't the way to fight joblessness in any real capacity.