Why studying humanities is a luxury only wealthy college students can now afford
The popular image of college often invokes students debating philosophy on the quad. But more evidence suggests that for many students today, college is less about expanding the mind and more about getting a job.
And that’s out of necessity: 25% of students who major in arts or humanities at all schools except the most selective ones default on their loans by the time they’re 33 years old. That’s compared to slightly less than 15% of their peers who majored in higher paying fields, like STEM. This is all according to data released this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The research adds to the growing body of evidence that college is a very different experience depending on who you are and where you go to school. Selective colleges, are typically made up of relatively wealthy, well-prepared and well-connected students. At those schools, slightly less than 15% of arts and humanities majors default on their student loans, just 3 percentage points more than the share of STEM majors at those colleges. That means students at these schools have more freedom to study topics that typically pay less because they’ll still be able to get a job with that degree, said Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.
But students at less selective colleges — or the majority of college students in the U.S. — typically need to choose a relatively lucrative field in order to ensure they leave school with decent job prospects.
“People in the upper half of the income distribution in America now see college as finishing school,” he said. “They assume they’re going to graduate. They’re looking past college almost before they start. The other kids are looking to go to college and make it.”
And unfortunately, relying on college as an agent of economic mobility can be a risky bet given the role of student loans in financing school. Students below the mean income are more likely to default than those from higher incomes, other data from the New York Fed shows. The reasons behind that are complex — in part because low-income students have fewer family resources to lean on when they’re in trouble, but also because they’re more likely to attend for-profit and other less selective schools with worse outcomes.