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Why Do Students Pick the Wrong Majors?

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wonders why American college students pick majors that are unlikely to lead them toward jobs:

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

I’m fairly certain the problem isn’t one of awareness. College students seem well-informed that studying sociology or literature or art is not a ticket to employment; they just don’t care. Perhaps they expect government programs and their parents’ money to take care of them not just during college, but also after.

Here is one solution Bruni proposes:

I’d go even further than he does and call for government and university incentives to steer students into the fields of studies that will serve them and society best. We use taxes to influence behavior. Why not student aid?

Really, the government already does that, except the incentives don’t necessarily direct students into majors that “will serve them and society best.” Humanities programs at public colleges are paid for, in part, by government money. Academic advisers who encourage students to study anthropology draw salaries generously provided by U.S. taxpayers.

Instead of using public money to incentivize the right majors, the government should stop throwing so much money at the wrong ones.

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