Future employment anxiety pushes students toward STEM studies

Siena Ferrick and Ellie Renshaw

The age-old saying that encourages people to be who they want to be is seen today as merely a mantra; both impractical and unattainable. Society posits that students can achieve success by simply following their dreams, but the reality is that they are confronted with two very separate paths for their academic futures as they enter college, to pursue academic success in the humanities or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

From 2012 to 2014, the number of college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in the humanities, studies which include history, literature, language, philosophy, religion, art and music, dropped by 8.7 percent, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Part of this decline may be attributed to the perception that, STEM-oriented fields yield profitable careers as the U.S. Department of Commerce projects a 17 percent growth in jobs related to STEM industries by 2018.

“I think STEM has a lot of hype at the moment because those careers are the fastest-growing. The colleges that create top salaries after one’s first year in the workplace at the moment are almost all tech schools,” an anonymous Madison student said in response to a survey of 235 Madison students conducted by The Hawk Talk..

Sixty-nine percent of Madison students said that finances play a part in considering future career goals. This focus on finance could be a factor when choosing between STEM or humanities as STEM majors earn an average of $9,022 to $18,826 more than humanities majors upon graduation, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

While college tuitions rise exponentially, the financial feasibility of potential majors is at the forefront of students’ and parents’ minds.

“Students are graduating from college and universities, and they have a lot of student debt, so they want good jobs. I think the perception is that humanities jobs pay less, that jobs involving anything STEM-oriented are going to be more financially rewarding and there are going to to be plenty of jobs,” Madison parent and former Madison teacher Alouf ‘Dr. J’ Scavatto said. “If you get a degree in music, one must be prepared to get a part-time job… because you won’t make it with just the degree.”

Contrary to popular perception, of the top 25 national colleges and universities that produce the highest-earning alumni ten years after graduation, ten of the colleges recorded that their most popular majors were social sciences. Eight of these colleges stated business management was their most popular major while seven reported STEM, according to U.S. Department of Education data compiled by Business Insider. While popular STEM schools were not the majority, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, topped the list, citing $91,600 as the median salary.

An additional concern that students expressed was a perceived lack of jobs for which humanities major qualify, but, in fact, in 2013, the national unemployment rate of those who held a bachelor’s degree in humanities was 5.4 percent, only 0.8 percent above the national average of 4.6 percent, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, refuting the belief that humanities education limits one’s ability to succeed post-graduation.

Though many still view STEM as financially secure fields of study, some, like principal and parent Greg Hood, believe that a student’s happiness is more important.

“You want your child to be independent; you want them to be successful; you want them to have a great job and a great life, so I can understand the angst of some parents,” Principal Hood said. “But at the same time, if my student loves drama over engineering, I don’t want to push that field of study. I want them to be happy.”

This sentiment was repeated by many of the interviewed parents, yet 40.3 percent of the students surveyed said that STEM is valued more than humanities at Madison, while 46.8 percent said they were valued equally, and 10 percent said humanities were valued more.
Nonetheless, Madison appears to offer students some shelter from a national predisposition for STEM as 65 percent of students think that STEM is valued more nationwide.

Currently, Madison offers 15 Advanced Placement (AP) humanities courses and 11 AP STEM courses.
While in high school, students have the freedom to explore different interests, which colleges appear to support. The concept that simply taking more STEM classes will get you into a better college is unfounded, according to an admissions officer from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Lyndsey Costa.

“We put much more emphasis on the core academic areas (math, lab science, English, history, etc.) and the strength of curriculum in those courses. For elective coursework, we encourage students to play to their strengths and interests,” Costa said. “If a student has an interest in a STEM-related field, STEM electives would be appropriate; if a student has an interest in communication or journalism, a student newspaper class is appropriate.”

Once students have gone through the extent of their education, even with the rise of technology-based business, they enter a workplace where lessons from humanities are still relevant. According to the Graduate Management Admission Test’s website, businesses most value people “who can speak well, write well, listen to others, present well, sell ideas to others and negotiate with others in the course of running a business” as hires.

“I think that [STEM and humanities] are becoming more integrated. In theatre, there are so many technological aspects involved. But also, in all businesses and companies, there’s publicity and design. If they can’t promote themselves in an artistic way, even a more STEM-based company will not do well,” Hunter Slingbaum (’18) said.

Many successful people, employed both by the government and by the private sector, were humanities majors, including Mitt Romney, who majored in English, and the former CEO of International Business Machines (IBM), Sam Palmisano, who studied history.

“You may have an excellent scientific understanding of a certain issue, but without the proper tools to communicate the problem and skills to find solutions, it’s hard to actually make progress. This is why so many of our best leaders have been students of law, history and the experience of our people as whole because that’s the job,” Jack Hicks (’18). “This is not to say that knowledge outside the humanities isn’t needed or wanted, in fact it can help a great deal in solving problems, but one needs a strong base in the humanities to be an effective leader with whom people can identify.”

Technology and the humanities have worked in tandem for years, in the government and in independent corporations, but the attitude surrounding the humanities and its perceived inequality in terms of importance is threatening the processes on which the country has come to depend.