Is Choosing the Right Major the Key to Economic Growth?

As the New York Times reports, one of the most prescient questions in education at the moment is whether college is worth it. But some economists and academics believe that we’re perhaps not asking the right question, and whether we should focus on whether the degree course is worth the money, and not college itself, writes Catherine Rampell at the New York Times.

In a piece in Investor’s Business Daily, Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, suggests that Americans shouldn’t be debating whether college in general is “worth it”; they should instead be focusing on and analyzing whether the specific college degree they’re considering is marketable.

A smaller share of students are choosing majors that are in demand, he writes:

“Over the past 25 years the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has been flat…”

But if students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math, what are they studying?”

In 2009 89,140 students graduated in the visual and performing arts in this country. That equates to more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined. Showing a more than 100% increase in the amount of people studying visual and performing arts in 1985.

Interestingly, Tabarrok notes STEM majors are more likely to find work and also to find high-paying work. He emphasizes that the choice of concentration not only matters for a worker’s earnings but for the entire economy:

“Economic growth is not a magic totem to which all else must bow, but it is one of the main reasons we subsidize higher education”, he said.

The potential wage gains for college graduates go to the graduates — that’s reason enough for students to pursue a college education. We add subsidies to the mix, however, because we believe education has positive spillover benefits that flow to society. One of the biggest of these benefits is the increase in innovation that highly educated workers bring to the economy.”

Some reason that, as a result, subsidizing students in fields with potentially large spillovers, such as microbiology, chemical engineering, nuclear physics and computer science would make sense. And, by the same token, there is little justification for subsidizing majors in the visual arts, psychology and journalism.