How Dare People Study Russian in College!

Since the beginning of the Great Recession,  I’ve noticed  a lot more handwringing about the costs of college and whether college is “worth it” anymore.  The big NYT piece a couple weeks ago highlighted a woman who has $100,000 in debt from her four-year degree at NYU, which she can’t pay because she doesn’t make enough money. But why doesn’t she make enough money? She got a liberal arts degree!

She recently received a raise and now makes $22 an hour working for a photographer. It’s the highest salary she’s earned since graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies. (emphasis added)

And so we get damning articles about how she should have known better and other should “learn from her mistake.”  And moreso, that the high cost of higher education model is on the way out the door.  I’m not here to defend the cost of a liberal arts degree, per se, but I think it’s interesting to think about the implicit argument on the other side, which I’ll call “University as Technical College.”  That is, are we demanding that everyone who goes to college gets a “practical degree” with “real-world applicability and immediate job prospects” (potentially also a haircut and jeans without holes in the knees)?

Prosperity Partnership talks all the time about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees, for that very reason: because the jobs in our economy require those degrees and we want the people educated here to be able to get the good (and well-paying) jobs.  In fact, we have our famous pie chart that shows how our state’s colleges and universities are overproducing other degrees, and we’d like that balance to shift.  So are we joining that chorus of encouraging people away from Russian & Women’s Studies?  Or are we saying that you can get those degrees only at a low-cost public institution with in-state tuition?  Or maybe only if you’re wealthy enough to not have to take out loans?  At the very least, do we want the student loan agencies to determine your maximum borrowing amount based on your proposed major? (Which reminds me of the scene in LA Story at the restaurant where the chef says “You think with a financial statement like this, you can have the duck!?!”)

“Defenders of the Liberal Arts” ™ would obviously make the argument that the point of those degrees is not necessarily the content of the major; clearly, a lot of Russian majors aren’t Russian translators when they grow up and not all Women’s Studies majors end up being…um…women studiers.  The idea is that liberal arts provide you with the ability to learn, think, analyze and engage with the world in a thoughtful way, which you then translate into some career of your choosing.  Oftentimes, that career choice requires further study, such as the staff member of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development who majored in Russian but then went on to get an MBA.  There was a time in our country’s history where a high school degree was enough to get  a job, and college was just for the highly educated; the new normal is that college is the baseline and graduate studies are the differentiation.  Is that good or bad?

The basic principle of economics is that people need to be rational actors, making smart decisions based on a thorough cost-benefit analysis.  Clearly, this doesn’t always happen, particularly by 18-year old students (if we did, I’d still have the bottom of my front tooth).  And when there is a significant distance between rational action and what most people are doing, there’s often a role for public policy to intervene.  The question, though, is “what is the proper intervention?”  And I’m pretty sure it’s neither banning liberal arts degrees nor only allowing people from specific socio-economic situations to pursue them.  Rather, I think that, when you have an “information problem” (as we call it in the biz), you respond with a more clear and effective distribution of information.  Especially in this information-access rich time, the ability to communicate with large numbers of people (particuarly young people) in a cheap and effective way is high.  And so messaging the link between education and career opportunities is both important and doable.  In fact, it’s the third bullet of our higher ed proposal. As we start to update the Regional Economic Strategy for the next five years, I have a feeling that this linkage is going to be a high priority moving forward.


5 Responses to How Dare People Study Russian in College!

  1. ericschinfeld says:

    By the way, this now qualifies as my third post on Russian/Russians: and

    Read the Prosperity Blog for all your Russia-related economic development musings!

  2. Great post, Eric.

    I would add that majoring in a STEM field need not preclude a student from receiving a solid liberal arts education. The engineers coming out of Seattle U or Gonzaga or Saint Martin’s, the physicists who graduate from University of Puget Sound or Whitworth, all get great grounding in the liberal arts, and those skills serve scientists and techies just as well as Russian translators!

    Check for one of the better cases for liberal arts I’ve read recently.

    Greg Scheiderer
    Independent Colleges of Washington
    Defender of the Liberal Arts TM

  3. Lew McMurran says:

    Eric, thanks for posting. As a parent of an incoming freshman at Seattle U, this issue hits as close to home as it can get.

    First off, the cost of higher education, like that of health care, has risen much faster than inflation in the last number of years. With that, though, public universities are still a pretty good deal for most students and worth the price in the long run.

    As a liberal arts grad, though, I would not advise either of my sons to study poli. sci., sociology, English, or possibly even economics as majors, especially if debt is involved in financing their education, as is the case for my son coming to Seattle U.

    While it would be nice if young people could study whatever they wanted in college, graduate in four years with no debt overhang and get a decent job that allows them to be self-sufficient, life is simply not like that anymore.

    The reality is that STEM degrees are both needed, necessary and better paying than the vast majority of traditional liberal arts degrees. Business and nursing degrees also seem to prepare students for finding something decent after graduation.

    I am big believer in attending college as it provides more opportunities in the long run for personal success, not just financially but in other areas of life as well.

    But I think it is clear that the “value” of a college education has diminished quite a bit when the cost of a liberal arts degree is so high, especially at a private school, when the job market is so weak and does not reward your knowledge of Shakespeare.

    More importantly for the future of our, or any region, is the need to inculcate the idea of starting one’s own business at some point in life, sooner rather than later. Jobs simply don’t work anymore as a pathway to financial success. Or colleges and universities need to be more honest with students and say “feel free to study liberal arts but don’t have any expectations that you will be independent when you graduate”.

  4. Michele Anciaux Aoki says:

    I had to laugh when I saw the headline. I think our daughter will come out quite fine, having studied Russian in college. Of course, she just graduated from the US Naval Academy with a B.S. in Astronautical Engineering. Oh, yes, and a minor in Russian Language. (The Naval Academy now also offers majors in Chinese and Arabic, but not Russian yet.) She’s headed for flight training in Pensacola later this year. And no student debt.

    So, how did a mom with a Ph.D. in Slavic Linguistics end up with a daughter with an engineering AND language degree? Because it makes sense. If a student loves math and science, it shouldn’t mean that she (or he) can’t also love languages. The problem has been that the liberal arts colleges have not really been set up to encourage students to major in STEM AND languages.

    Not so in the rest of the world, I’d say. Otherwise, how could all of the computer science, math, and engineering students from India, China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan — you name it — be filling our US colleges and managing quite well in a language (English) other than their first.

    The key is to make language learning a priority much earlier on in the education system. Other countries are teaching languages to students at the elementary level, often adding a second or third language at the secondary level. When they arrive at college, they’re ready for STEM because they’re not spending their time in beginning level language classes. (Check it out: the majority of enrollments in our WA colleges are at the first year level where students are unlikely to get much beyond Novice level proficiency.)

    Yes, it’s important for the Prosperity Partnership to spread the word about where the jobs in our state really are, but that doesn’t have to mean that we should discourage our kids from studying Russian. Russian may prove to be the edge that makes all the difference.

  5. George Hadley says:

    I think the real question is not “How dare people study Russian?” but “How dare do bureaucrats lend people $100,000 of our hard earned dollars (or provide guarantees of $100,000 of our hard earned dollars) to people who want to study ‘Women’s Studies?'” If we eliminated federal loans or loan guarantees, then hard-nosed bankers (who are actually responsible for their lending actions) would evaluate the course of studies, the intellectual capabilities and scholastic record of the student, and other factors that might cast light on the ability of the student to (eventually) repay the loan.

    Now we have bureaucrats who are encouraged to make any loan, no matter how stupid; since if they were turning down ridiculous loan requests, someone would figure out that we don’t need to pay people to turn down loan requests.

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