A popular article by Verlyn Klinkenborg last week in The New York Times Sunday Review lamented the decline of English majors at top colleges and universities. Mr. Klinkenborg is worried about the “technical narrowness” of some college programs and the “rush to make education pay off”– which, he writes, “presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring.”
I am sympathetic to certain parts of Mr. Klinkenborg’s hypothesis: for instance, the potential value of writing skills even for students who major in scientific or technical fields, and the risks that specialization can pose to young minds that are still in their formative stages.
But Mr. Klinkenborg also neglects an important fact: more American students are attending college than ever before. He is correct to say that the distribution of majors has become more career-focused, but these degrees may be going to students who would not have gone to college at all in prior generations.
In 2011, according to the federal government’s Digest of Education Statistics, about 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded by American colleges, roughly double the 840,000 degrees in 1971. The number of Americans of college age has not increased nearly so rapidly. We can approximate the number of Americans who would be at the typical age to receive a bachelor’s degree by evaluating the number of 21-year-olds in the United States population. In 2011, there were about 4.6 million 21-year-olds in the United States, compared with 3.7 million in 1971 — only about a 25 percent increase instead of double. <Read more.>