Why I Let My Daughter Get a ‘Useless’ College Degree

A new study from the Federal Reserve offers more evidence that my humanities-loving child will graduate with lots of debt and not so many job offers. And I'm O.K. with that.

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My oldest child, Emma, just returned to campus after a long holiday break to finish up her last semester of college.

But even before she has put the final period on her senior thesis, friends and family have begun bombarding me with one question: What is she going to do after graduation?

The job market is, after all, awfully tough. Just this month the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released a study showing that “recent graduates are increasingly working in low-wage jobs or working part-time,” if they’re lucky enough to find work at all.

The bright spot, according to the Fed analysis, is for students who majored in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — areas in which recent graduates “have tended to do relatively well, even in today’s challenging labor market.” But Emma is a student of the much maligned humanities at a small liberal arts school. She’s an American Studies major with a focus on the politics and culture of food.

For quite a while, I tripped all over myself to describe how her field of study is so trendy right now that I’m not the least bit worried she will find a decent job.  “Emma’s concentration and interests could lead her in any number of directions,” I would tell people. “Writing for a food blog. Working at a nonprofit that improves health and nutrition for the urban poor. Managing social media for a food-related startup.”

Clearly, I wasn’t just explaining; I was overexplaining in an attempt to rationalize how Emma’s chosen path will turn into a steady paycheck. It’s as if her employment status were a referendum on the choices that my husband and I have made about her education. In retrospect, I’d hit a common pitfall: equating Emma’s personal success with my own success as a parent.

Yet the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided to be honest. “I’m not sure what Emma is going to do,” I now say. “But she’s gotten a great education and has really found her passion — and I know those things will serve her well over the course of her life.”

Don’t get me wrong. We are not immune to the high cost of college. Emma’s father and I have made sacrifices to give her and her brother the kind of education we value. There will be loans to pay when she graduates — and, yes, my husband and I will foot that bill. And of course, we will be thrilled if Emma finds work come May and doesn’t have to move back in with us.

But from the beginning, we never urged her to pick a college or a major with an eye on its expected return on investment, as more and more families are doing.

It has become practically quaint these days to think of institutions of higher learning as places that teach students to think critically and analytically, read widely and write well. More and more, schools are being measured by, among other things, the salaries of their recent graduates. The Obama Administration has only reinforced this bias by proposing to rank colleges based, in part, on how much money graduates earn.

In this climate, encouraging your kid to study the humanities — which face funding challenges, are scrambling for students and are under siege — can seem, at best, unwise or, at worst, reserved for elites unconcerned with earning a living. Only 8% of students now major in the humanities, down from a peak of more than 17% in 1967, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

But college is not vocational school. And promoting STEM subjects should not be society’s only answer to helping the next generation thrive in a competitive world.

In a recent article in The New Republic, Brown University’s president, Christina Paxson, made an impassioned argument in support of the humanities. “Our focus should not be only on training students about the skills needed immediately upon graduation,” she said. “The value of those skills will depreciate quickly. Instead, our aim is to invest in the long-term intellectual, creative and social capacity of human beings.”

For a while, I fell into a trap, made to feel as if Emma’s imminent employment (or lack thereof) is of immense importance.  I’ve come to realize that what really matters will be something that we may not be able to measure for quite a long time: Emma’s contribution to the world and how happy and fulfilled she is in it.