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China to cancel college majors that don't pay (wsj.com)
142 points by BlackJack on Nov 25, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 109 comments



As a native Chinese who graduated from a 211 & 985 college in China just few years ago, I think there are really some media manipulation going on here.

It's not they are going to do this, the Ministry already started this rule in as early as 2004-12-10.

The problem it trying to solve is that, there are too many low-level buzz-word fancy term majors created in Chinese universities, like "nanotech", "earth science", or "life science".

These majors often only covers a superficial fraction of the subject, and allows quick rote learning only on some intro theory, then quickly issue a diploma. The hardcore part of knowledge is hard thus left to other traditional majors

Why do Chinese have diploma greed? Because diploma is a hyper-inflation profitable industry in China. Nearly every bullshit job requires a BS degree, they employer just want to make the company staff looks "better educated"

These "hot" majors are not really teaching any knowledge, but an easy way to grab a degree, so the students can gain their entry to various job titles. The college make lots of money by expanding cheap majors.

But the students learns too few to start a serious career, so in a competitive job markets these students have much higher failure rate than similar harder majors.

In fact, corrupted officials/businessman can order famous univ. to create a special, private major for themselves, their daughters and sons. They don't even have to spend full 4 year time school to get a very high degree.

In addition, "new & new" majors" name is very similar to other authentic ones (aka ShanZhai majors) but requires a lot less effort to accomplish.

So the Ministry started to ban major frauds, under the name of "low employment rate".

Are they going to cancel or stop funding traditional liberal arts majors? I don't think they are really that stupid. Are there humanities majors effected by this rule? Sure.


If what you're saying is true (that this program is targeted at "shanzhai" majors) than this is very different from what this article is trying to portray.

In that case, the comments in this thread are a perfect example of how little people understand about China and how everything is portrayed through the lens of flawed media. It's a shame that everything we hear about China here in the states is from second-hand sources that have more interest in telling a shocking black and white story than portraying the gray truth.


I've lived in a communist country for 10 years of my life so perhaps I am biased, but I've had a similar suspicion that there's a media war going on against China and their policies (whether intentional or as a side-effect of stereotyping).

Certainly there are some Chinese policies which deserve serious criticism, which is why I get really suspicious when numerous articles mockingly talk about about other, less-relevant flaws in China's society such as imitation (fake Apple stores, imitation American jets and cars), developing advanced tech in a careless, half-assed way (high-speed train crashes), or carelessness about the environment (3 Gorges Dam) and then applying this mindless, careless progress as something unique to China.. or dare I say communism. The truth is if you looked at the advancement of any modern superpower you will see nothing but the same kinds of flaws. I'm not saying this kind of crude, unstoppable progress is a good thing.. but passing it as something that's just part of the Chinese mentality is probably a poor representation of the true values of the culture as a whole.


In this specific piece, Chinese domestic media started the bias first. The Chinese media (including the State-run ones) industry always bend things to a most ridiculous dramatic angle.


> "Nearly every bullshit job requires a BS degree, they employer just want to make the company staff looks "better educated". These "hot" majors are not really teaching any knowledge, but an easy way to grab a degree, so the students can gain their entry to various job titles. The college make lots of money by expanding cheap majors. But the students learns too few to start a serious career, so in a competitive job markets these students have much higher failure rate than similar harder majors."

Brilliant. They figured out what we were doing in America and then turned around and did it better.


And now are attempting to fix it. Perhaps that puts them one step ahead.


This does make much more sense compared to the assumption we immediately jump to ("eliminating liberal arts majors.")

Actual facts aside, what is fascinating is how we arrive to this assumption. The article only mentions "unemployable graduates." Nowhere does it mention humanities or specific majors. It is then we, the readers, who apply our Western worldview and assume this means "humanities majors."


For what it's worth, the article did end with a mention about humanities majors in the closing line, "psychology, U.S. history and military technologies". While not humanities, Military technologies is an easy one to work out why people are unemployed. There are few people employed in military industries who weren't in the military, hence difficulty finding work. So it is easy to see why comments are about humanities when the article's closing line singles humanities out.

Thanks to the grandparent poster for the deeper insight.


sadly enough the emphasis on education (a good thing) in asian countries (china and india especially) is a driver for diploma greed. there are plenty of institutions , hand in hand with the govt administrators, which set up shop with little or no infrastructure. the stigma associated with someone who does not have a college degree is high and you can forget about a job as a high school grad when a college grad shows up to do the same work. too many students, too few good institutions and corrupt officials result in phantom diploma's. hence many times , the real education starts at the workplace. if the original article is correct, then it would seem they are just shifting unemployment from one kind of majors to another, cause there was no mention of employement shortage in other majors.


Good expression for diploma hyperinflation, "Nearly every bullshit job requires a BS degree".


I know from a reliable source (worked in the gov. now working as a teacher in a uni). People just bullshit with their resume. My friend told me a had a student who did 100+ published articles whereas she is less than 30years old. Everytime she does a shitty stuff she says it's an article, and she steals articles from other people also... Apparently people do that in university.


Damn I'm glad I learned passion for a craft first, and the importance of social signaling later.


Why "Nearly every bullshit job requires a BS degree"? The answer is in the news report:"a generation of jobless graduates."


Yeah, all those arts graduates filling prisons with dissidents. There are already calls in the comments for a similar system in other countries. Why should university be about getting a job? Shouldn't university be about learning, and being recognised for learning. A history major or a poetry degree may not be the best way to get a job but I would prefer to live in a society with poets and historians.

Jobless, educated young people are copping a lot of flak from the media everywhere at the moment. They are a drain on the economy, "they are the 99%", they are having Arab springs where spring lasts all year, they are making molotovs in Greece. They are agents for changing society.

The underlying current of this idea in education is that we should all be happy little workers. Universities have been commercialised away from being the places that brought about the Enlightenment to places for turning out more advanced labourers. Universities are becoming (some have already become) an extension of the standard school system.

I found university to be a cacophony of ideas and viewpoints that until that point I had never really experienced. It introduced me to thoughts and ideas I may have never of experienced if I stayed in a small country town. Degree-mills rarely ever have this sort of environment and if all universities are reduced to churning out technical apprentices the world will be a worse place for it.


I didn't see any mentions of banning "poets and historians" in the article (though I just skimmed to be fair). What I saw was China cutting public funding for some majors.

If someone wants to be a poet, or a historian, or anything else, more power to him. Why on everyone else's money, though?

To be honest, if your calling to become a poet is stopped by a government's funding decision, you wouldn't have made much of a poet anyway.


How do you quantify the importance of a major compared to another? Certainly poets, historians, artists, and writers have more than a monetary importance in society. How do you measure the inspiration a great writer generates? How do you objectively compare the societal benefit of a mathematician versus a historian so that you can mete their funding accordingly?

I see a lot of "bootstraps" comments in the tech field— specifically about the liberal arts— and it's a shame. I wouldn't be in this field if it weren't for some of those "worthless" degrees like English (great writing helps the learning process) and Design (people are attracted to good-looking websites).

My apologies if I got a little ranty. It just irks me to see someone putting down another field of study as though they're a drain on society.


If you push on the supply side without pulling on the demand side, you're going to squash a lot of liberal arts majors against the wall. As a society, we are probably employing more academics than ever: more historians, more philosophers, more classicists, more literature critics. But we are producing even more graduates and graduate students who there are fundamentally not enough positions for, later on up the pipeline. And the typical English BA who works as a barista doesn't necessarily produce lots of poetry or anything on their free time.

Poets and writers today, and throughout time, live unique, often impoverished existences without necessarily being part of an academic establishment or having relevant education. Or they make tons of money selling dramatic scripts to the masses. If Shakespeare were alive today he'd be a screenwriter.


How do you objectively compare the societal benefit of a mathematician versus a historian so that you can mete their funding accordingly?

From the article:The government will soon start evaluating college majors by their employment rates, downsizing or cutting those studies in which less than 60% of graduates fail for two consecutive years to find work.

Setting aside the question of whether that is a particularly good method, I'd like to suggest that it's at least more objective and quantifiable than just presuming that a degree in any given subject is equally the cause of or prerequisite to greatness in a given field, and therefore of equal value. Great art doesn't depend on art degrees to the same extent that great science depends on science degrees.


The problem surely is that your evaluating by employment rates right now , this will not necessarily be so in the future and the govt probably isn't the best at predicting future demand. Geography is also a factor here.

What you risk doing is grossly over subscribing 'boom' fields and driving down salaries of competent people within those fields.


If someone wants to be a poet, or a historian, or anything else, more power to him. Why on everyone else's money, though?

If someone wants to become a Flash-game developer or make webapps, more power to him. Why on everyone else's money, though?


I can think of a couple of answers...

First is that no education should take place on someone else's dime. Let the market sort it out. So don't subsidize literature or mathematics, film studies or nuclear engineering. Step back and let the market work it out.

The second is that the government should subsidize education, on the notion that some fields, such as science and engineering, generate positive externalities that can't be recouped by the practitioners of these fields. As you can probably tell, I think there's a lot of merit to this argument, especially in core science. I think that a scientist or engineer who earns 100K a year often generates far more wealth than, say, a mortgage broker who earns 100K a year. It does make sense to me that the government would try to find ways to encourage this.

If you feel this way, you probably don't mind educational subsidies and tax breaks for certain types of activities (by the way, I read somewhere that China has excepted software engineers from certain types of income taxes).

While I probably sound enthusiastic about this kind of arrangement, the truth is I'm ambivalent about it, largely because I have serious doubts that this kind of government interference will work. Instead, it often leads to a system that is easily gamed (engineering majors take the subsidy and then go work on wall street, and get a tax break because they write software for trading algorithms).

So in the end, I tend to favor a more hands-off, market based approach - though with some state subsidies for certain educational paths and research activity.

Lightweight yet effective and highly competent government... I do think it's possible, and the societies that figure it out will run circles around everyone else.


> "Shouldn't university be about learning, and being recognised for learning."

Not when it costs six figures and puts people neck-deep in debt.

I want to live in your utopian world, where people get educations just because. We would all be better off.

But the truth of the matter is, for a lot of people there are two choices after high school:

A - Pay $[bignum] for education that has high employability and will give them the knowledge and qualifications necessary to find work, which is absolutely necessary if they ever hope to repay said debt.

B - Pay $[bignum] for education that has low employability and will not give them any of the qualifications sought for in in-demand jobs. They will still owe $[bignum] which will compromise all other aspects of their lives.

I see your line of argument a lot whenever this topic comes up. My challenge to you is: besides a lot of feel-good platitudes, how will your system work? How will people feed themselves, clothe themselves, and put a roof over their head - their head full of wonderful perspectives and understanding but no job?

The "we can all get comprehensive" education idea died when education became expensive. It died when globalization squeezed the American middle class to become more desperate and ever more critically reliant on continued employment. Far from being the norm, the age of comprehensive college education was a brief blip in thousands of years of human civilization lasting no more than a few decades. The gravy train has come to a full and complete stop, and it's time for industrialized nations to clue into something: life is tough. You scramble to survive. High-minded ideology comes second to the survival of yourself and your loved ones.

If, in this topsy-turvy struggle you can find time to fit in a comprehensive education. Good for you - you won. The rest of the world isn't so lucky.


Education plus time to think drives innovation.

In your 'real' world where everyone must frantically scamble to survive, civilization never leaves the caves.

We have massive surpluses across the world, 98%R of the wealth is owned by a tiny fraction of the people, food is piled up and wasted to protect markets, and yet there are still idiots claiming that we just cannot afford to educate everyone.

We cannot afford not to, if we want to survive into the 22nd century and beyond.

Its not a gravy train, our surpluses drove our technological advantages, which in turn drove our surpluses.


Don't get me wrong - I'm absolutely of the position that education can, and must be cheaper for society to function.

But what should and shouldn't be is of cold comfort to someone leaving high school right now, who is forced to make this choice in a world where education is expensive. I'm sick and tired of people shaming everyone for getting a "useful" education.

I'm all for education reform - note in my original post I mentioned that comprehensive education died when it got too expensive. But can we, for once, stop booing and shaming people who choose rationally within the existing system? Can we also stop giving people excuses for choosing poorly within this system?

We have a society where it costs six figures to get a degree. This is a damn shame and should be fixed. But knowing this people still get degrees they can't afford, and then tell a sob story to the press about how their $100K+ degree can't find them a job. Well, shit.

The solution to this problem is to make education cheaper, not to shelter and coddle people who are incapable of making a rational decision.

[edit] To address your point:

> "Education plus time to think drives innovation."

I agree, but I do think that we are inevitably returning to a state where education plus time to think are going to become rare luxuries. Our innovation will suffer as a result - has already suffered as a result.

But I don't think there's anything we can do to stop this. The US gained an incredible industrial lead over the rest of the world early on, which allowed to elevate its quality of life well beyond anything the world had seen, which in turn drove the wheels of innovation and invention.

But decades of mismanagement, rampant robber-baron capitalism, and simple globalization has meant that the US middle class is gutted. It's getting more and more desperate out there - more and more people working multiple jobs, more and more people making large cutbacks to their quality of life to make ends meet. This is a vicious cycle, to be certain, but I can't see how to stop it.


> I want to live in your utopian world, where people get educations just because.

You're welcome, we call it Sweden.

Higher education is free (before this year it was even free for non-swedes), and you get a stipend to pay for food/rent as long as you keep passing courses.

I know someone who's about to get a physics degree and is going to go into bartending afterwards since it seems more fun. I also know people who get education after education (stuff like psychology, history) while they figure out what they want to do.


Does everyone get this free education, or just some people? I grew up in Germany, where only a small percentage of students got into Gymnasium (as opposed to more trade-oriented high schools), and only a small percentage of them got into universities. I'm not saying this is necessarily bad, just that it doesn't line up with the idea of a utopian world where everyone gets a free university education.

>Higher education is free...and you get a stipend to pay for food/rent as long as you keep passing courses.

This actually created a huge problem in Berlin when I was living there. Being in the university system was such a good deal that nobody wanted to leave. Students would change majors every few years to avoid graduating for as long as possible, sitting through courses they didn't really care about because it was easier than graduating and working for a living. Classes became terribly over-crowded: when walking around the campus area, you could tell the students apart from people who just happened to be passing through, because the students all carried folding chairs with them because none of the classrooms had enough seats. To compensate, they had to dramatically reduce the quotas for incoming students, so the students who were loitering in the university system were effectively blocking younger students from ever having the opportunity to get a degree.

I don't know if/how they ever fixed this problem, but I'm sure it's very hard to fix short of putting a hard limit (e.g. 4 or 5 years) on receiving the stipend.


> Does everyone get this free education, or just some people?

Yeah, there's room for everyone. Class sizes are limited so acceptance into programs is merit-based (high school grades or a special test), but worst case you just have to settle for a less prestigious school.

There is actually a time limit to the stipend (IIRC 300 weeks of study) to avoid abuse, but it's also dependent on you actually passing courses.


I'll stick to the US. I don't think I'd enjoy reducing my consumption/income to Swedish levels.

http://super-economy.blogspot.com/2010/03/super-economy-in-o...


What you do is your choice. Not everyone measures wealth in dollars http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisfaction_with_Life_Index


That's an index premised on the hypothesis that "happiness" correlates in significant part with "access to education". It's unsurprising that Sweden does better on that index than the US, while doing poorer on others. That feels cherry picked.


No, it's an index based on asking people how they feel. From one of the sources of the wikipedia article: "Participants in the various studies were asked questions related to happiness and satisfaction with life". The health/wealth/education correlations aren't actually part of the index, they're just comparisons made afterwards to help understand what improves happiness.

I only picked that specific one since it was the first google result for my search terms.


Shhh... don't bring up those crazy ideals here. We all know that the end all and be all of the world is the free market's sociopathic fundamental that "more money, and more money alone, always means better".


Of course not. We know that Obama and Nancy Pelosi know how to spend our money better than we do.


If you find yourself typing "Pelosi" or (usually) even "Obama" on HN, you're doing something wrong. I didn't just downmod this comment; I flagged it. It was unworthy of 'yummyfajita's parent comment. If you're going to call people names and write DailyKos/RedState-style comments, you can safely assume 'yummyfajitas is going to represent your views here more thoughtfully than you and save yourself the trouble.


And most people don't measure wealthy by what some dingbat socialist says.


And you leftists continue to lie and say it's free when everybody knows it's not.


Well, Russia is(was?) that utopian world where you can get education comparable to MIT for free, "just because". Everything changes, though.


Agreed. I have a history degree, and program professionally. Universities are about expanding your mind, not turning into Good Employee.


This feels like the anecdote. I suspect you're far from the typical history major case. How about all those history majors now working at McDonalds: were they well served by their mind-expansion experience?


I don't need a university to expand my mind.


Well hey there mate, I have a BA in History and program professionally too. JavaEE at work, and python on GNU/Linux all the way at home.


I don't think that cancelling a major automatically means that all liberal arts classes are nonexistent. I majored in math and cs, but went to France for a term, and took philosophy, drawing, music, history, and comparative literature. I don't think my school would become a degree mill just because it didn't offer a complete degree for history.


I majored in CS and maths too and like you I also took advantage of various electives (psychology, philosophy, anatomy, genetics, public health). I spent a lot of my time attending friends lectures as well because you could just walk in and join the discussion without enrolling in the course. At university I would talk to people (students, academics, university staffers and researchers, hangers on) who specialised in an amazing array of topics. I would get interested in the practicalities of structural engineering for abstract architecture or plant sucrose transport channel manipulation simply by finding someone and talking to them about it.

If a school doesn't offer an entire history program, the chances of meeting someone really interested and specialised in history go down dramatically. A program isn't cut in isolation, courses are dropped, academics are fired, research programs are ended and opportunities are lost. Some universities have cut back to only offering first year courses in humanities (which you could probably learn everything from such courses with wikipedia, Khan Academy and an understocked library). You are unlikely to find people with more than a passing interest in a field if it isn't available for research at a university. Cut enough programs (or only offer a few to start with) and the school is a degree mill.

Highly specialised universities are often dead ends socially. They aren't fun places to visit, people are only there for that piece of paper that gets them a job. I've worked in a technical campus that was completely silent at night. The students would go across town to another university because "the music was better" or "it's more fun there". If there are no bands forming in an Engineering department there is something seriously wrong with the creative environment of the school or with the people who attend it. If you really want to find out why this is such a terrible idea go somewhere that has already done it.


I've worked in a technical campus that was completely silent at night. The students would go across town to another university because "the music was better" or "it's more fun there".

Translation: "Women don't go to technical schools, lets go where the women are."

This problem could also be solved by pairing technical educations - an engineering/nursing school would not suffer this problem.


On a global scale, a liberal arts curriculum is the exception, not the rule. I highly doubt that Chinese universities have liberal arts curricula.


> Why should university be about getting a job? Shouldn't university be about learning, and being recognised for learning.

Chinese university has a different definition. It's like vocational schools rather than college. Chinese vocational schools are like dirty work training camp.


The problem is not (e.g.) poets and historians, but that the supply of people-qualified-to-be-poets and people-qualified-to-be-historians exceeds the demand for them.

(Full disclosure: I am a high school dropout, so I'm not qualified to do anything.)


I agree, although in theory.

It would a different set of priorities for a single child whose parents toiled in government factories (or even to till land - often migrating across countries to work just because they were 'transferred'). The culture of aspiring to be an artist or a 'non-professional' (defined locally as not one who brings a pay check every month; not the freelancer kind) has yet to be cultivated. (The irony is - pre communism era was the opposite; it was artists all around)


I was going to try participating in this discussion, but instead I'm just going to say:

Wow, as a computer scientist, most of the comments in these kinds of discussions leave me disheartened and embarrassed with the arrogance ("useless", etc.) of my fellow technical folks. A discussion about where to allocate graduates makes sense, but the kind of unjustifiably arrogant invective here doesn't.

I think people might want to look at whether their house is made of glass a bit more as well, before denigrating "useless" historians and throwing around phrases like "contributes to the country's advancement". Is the webapp you're working on really a great contribution to society? Is Zynga producing value that will move our civilization forward?


I am really glad the Chinese are doing this. Not because I think it is a good idea, it is an astonishingly bad idea, but because in doing it they will demonstrate just how bad an idea it is.

I am very much a free market type person, I think anyone should be able to get any degree they want. And I think that people should understand that just any degree doesn't mean they will be employable after they graduate. But we do need folks who are passionate about lots of different things, and take those passions rigorously to the highest level.

The Chinese may find that someone who would excel in Art History and who would have, had they been allowed to, enabled others to develop deeper insights into their culture by looking at the art that their culture has created, may be really crappy business majors, or science majors. And making it harder for businesses to discern between people who wanted to be in business and those who were 'forced' into it, also harder which will make those businesses less efficient at employing folks.

I hope at that point everyone will look back and go "Gee that was a stupid idea." and we won't have to debate hypothetical 'what if' type arguments.


And I think that people should understand that just any degree doesn't mean they will be employable after they graduate.

Sadly, I suspect this is just a pipe dream. Here in the UK we have the same problem the Chinese are facing - people doing bullshit degrees because they need the letters after their names. The Govt. here are even encouraging it.

As some of the other commentators are pointing out this is an already-effective scheme in China which has been used to cut some of those useless degrees.


> And making it harder for businesses to discern between people who wanted to be in business and those who were 'forced' into it, also harder which will make those businesses less efficient at employing folks.

It was my impression that Chinese students followed their parents ambitions. So I am not so sure that this effect will be all that noticeable. If I'm wrong here feel free to eviscerate me.

As a side note: I upvoted you for bullet biting.


Why was the sibling comment from sinope [1] down voted to death, when it was highly relevant, and factually more correct than those around it.

Seriously HN, do you want to share knowledge and discuss things, or filter out people with differing views?

Edit: added link for clarity.

[1] http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3276199


FYI, that comment was not down-voted; the account is hell-banned.


You bring up a good point, but this would also be a very painful way to prove that a stupid idea is stupid. Many people will suffer in order to make an obvious point even more obvious.


It doesn't get much more short-sighted than this. What happens in 20 years if engineers are everywhere and can't get work?

Instead, let's make liberal arts degrees cheaper. There's no reason why a Philosophy or English degree needs to cost 15k+ a year. It's been said before, and it needs said again: a liberal arts education is just as valuable today as it was 300 years ago. The current problem is one of cost, not of value.


I think that's backwards. Make Science/Engineering cheaper and liberal arts more expensive... arts degrees should be considered luxury items: nice to have but not strictly necessary. I think many people would be better off not going to University than get an arts degree, whereas there is huge societal benefit to pushing out more scientists and engineers.

Liberal arts should exist, just at a much smaller (frankly, more reasonable wrt actual demand) scale.


If the objective is to maximize short-term economic gains, then yes, that would work.

If the objective is to create well-rounded, cross-disciplinary citizens, then no, that is a horrible idea.

Regardless, I think it's a false dichotomy. Why does one have to be expensive while the other is cheap? And why can't someone get both a liberal arts education and a "practical" education? I see no reason why a student can't pay 5k for a 2-3 year liberal arts degree, and then go on to (competitively-priced) a 2-3 year engineering degree.


> If the objective is to create well-rounded, cross-disciplinary citizens, then no, that is a horrible idea.

Why is it that everyone thinks a STEM education means you are automatically not well-rounded or cross-disciplinary? There are universities with STEM programs that mitigate this problem successfully by creating the right requirements for the degree.

As an example, the requirements for breadth were FAR more stringent at my university for technical fields than for the humanities/social sciences. The 'science' breadth requirement for a humanities major could be satisfied by first-semester courses like the introductory Nutritional Science course, but the breadth requirements for technical majors required that students end up taking at least a couple 3rd/4th year courses in liberal arts fields (which in turn had lower-level prerequisites, naturally). This resulted in the inverse problem from my POV, whereby the majors generally assumed to create well-rounded students actually failed to do so.

Furthermore, being well-rounded is a lot more than what you study in college IMO. A well-rounded citizen has to continually invest in 'upkeep' that earns them that label. The most well-rounded folks I know read throughout their life (often across a broad set of topics), continually invest in their education on their own time through this reading, keep up on current-events, and so forth. I don't see a lack of liberal arts education precluding these activities or any other activities that might contribute to being well-rounded.

> And why can't someone get both a liberal arts education and a "practical" education?

I generally agree that this would be ideal, but it is also constrained by how much money we have as a society. Remember - you and I are contributing our own funds indirectly to subsidize this same education, and it is certainly not cheap these days (see other comments on cost of education). The trick of course is to strike the right balance and realize a good return on that educational investment. Personally, I can see value in something like a Minor in a field that is completely different than one's Major, but I don't see the benefit being much greater if one were to get two full degrees.


> > If the objective is to create well-rounded, cross-disciplinary citizens, then no, that is a horrible idea.

Why is it that everyone thinks a STEM education means you are automatically not well-rounded or cross-disciplinary? There are universities with STEM programs that mitigate this problem successfully by creating the right requirements for the degree.

...

> And why can't someone get both a liberal arts education and a "practical" education?

I generally agree that this would be ideal, but it is also constrained by how much money we have as a society.

---------------------

So, a) we'll require everyone take liberal arts, to solve the problem of b) it's too expensive for everyone to take liberal arts?

The main issue I've heard people cite with majoring in the liberal arts is that liberal arts majors don't make enough money to cover costs. Raising the costs of being a liberal arts major seems like a pretty roundabout way of solving that problem.


> If the objective is to create well-rounded, cross-disciplinary citizens, then no, that is a horrible idea.

How about some evidence that liberal arts graduates have anything to do with "well-rounded, cross-disciplinary citizens"?

As someone noted above, STEM folk are far more cross-disciplinary than liberal arts grads.


I think the key there is the plural. If you're given two subsets of the population, where:

Subset A roughly corresponds to the current population's mix of educational backgrounds, and

Subset B is the transformation of A where all liberal arts majors have been replaced with STEM graduates,

I think it's obvious that subset A would be more "cross-disciplinary" and "well-rounded" taken as a group. It's not that individual liberal arts majors are more well rounded, it's that having a well-rounded collective of citizens is important.


> I think the key there is the plural.

I don't think that that's the intent of the claim, but I'll play along.

> It's not that individual liberal arts majors are more well rounded, it's that having a well-rounded collective of citizens is important.

But, how much do liberal arts majors contribute to said "well-rounded collective" and at what cost?

For example, it might be more cost-effective to add a bit more "rounded" to STEM majors.

And, that's ignoring the benefit of having this "rounded" within individuals instead of across groups.


I'm down for some banter. Let's try this out.

> But, how much do liberal arts majors contribute to said "well-rounded collective" and at what cost?

Are you asking how they contribute to well-roundedness, or are you asking to value their individual contributions to society while ignoring contributions to well-roundedness as a valuable asset? How they contribute to well-roundedness is handled with the whole Subset A vs Subset B thing, I think. In regards to value -- I'm pretty sure that Hunter Thompson guy was good to have around. I dunno.

As to the cost: I guess that depends on whether you view liberal arts majors as a detriment to society, or at least intrinsically inferior to STEM majors. If they're equal then they're no additional cost, because their education costs exactly the same dollar amount.

> And, that's ignoring the benefit of having this "rounded" within individuals instead of across groups.

Certainly well-rounded individuals are important. But unless everyone is forced to be dual-degree, there will inevitably end up being biases towards the main major -- and I say this as a well-rounded STEM grad.

And doesn't requiring the well-roundedness to be at the individual level ignore the benefit of having some number of single-focus specialists within a society? It's not like Salman Rushdie spends his spare time proving P=NP, or Dijkstra's out writing papers on critical race theory.


>> But, how much do liberal arts majors contribute to said "well-rounded collective" and at what cost?

> Are you asking how they contribute to well-roundedness

Yes.

> How they contribute to well-roundedness is handled with the whole Subset A vs Subset B thing

Not clear. You're claiming that an LA degree has some "roundedness" value. That's not obvious. And, even if it's true, that doesn't imply that we need a lot of LA degrees to get whatever benefit there is. For example, how much worse off would we be with half as many English majors?

> I'm pretty sure that Hunter Thompson guy was good to have around.

I'd agree, but would ask whether his existence depended on the existence of a large number of LA majors. I'd point out that similar folks existed before we had a lot of LA majors and we don't have more Hunter Thompsons now.

> If they're equal then they're no additional cost, because their education costs exactly the same dollar amount.

Huh? It doesn't matter whether LA majors cost more or less than STEM majors. The question is the relationship between the cost of LA majors and the benefits of LA majors. (There's a similar question about STEM majors.)

It's interesting that we had a thread a while back about how China was better because its political leadership had engineering degrees....


> You're claiming that an LA degree has some "roundedness" value.

I think I understand our point of disagreement.

I don't mean to claim LA majors have a "roundedness" value. I'm claiming that the collective average of STEM and LA leads to a rounded group, assuming "roundedness" in this case is considered to mean equally proficient in the diverse areas of knowledge.

As a metaphor, assume we have a bag full of red, purple, and blue marbles, where the purple is equivalent to roundedness (having equal amounts of red and blue). Replacing all of the red marbles with perfectly-purple ones actually decreases the purpleness of the bag -- it shifts the average color towards blue. Even if we give the blue ones with "a bit more 'rounded'" purple, to echo your call, the average remains shifted more towards blue than it was when there was red to balance it out.

LA majors don't have a roundedness value -- pure-LA is as unrounded as pure-STEM. I'm generally working under the assumption that "roundedness" means that you're knowledgeable in many areas, instead of only knowledgeable in a single one. Replacing a specific set of specialists with jacks-of-all-trades leaves the group with less average knowledge in the direction of the replaced specialists' knowledge base.

You could be arguing to make everyone completely and equally rounded/purple -- replacing both the blues and the reds, so that everyone would graduate with both a full LA degree and a full STEM degree. But your call for adding "a bit more 'rounded' to STEM majors" instead of having LA majors didn't sound like that, and making everyone be dual-degree seems a bit infeasible.


I keep hearing this flood meme. I'm not sure I buy into it.

It may conceivably devalue the degree itself by making it less uncommon, but skills likely lose value at a much lower rate. There are also network effects - the pace of modern science and engineering goes almost entirely on the fact that we have a great many people working at once and sharing results.

There's also nothing to stop you from studying engineering then getting a job which uses a completely different skill set. A liberal arts degree is not a career training program in most cases. Opportunity cost is one big reason why this is less acceptable than it could be. However, it may be that different program models make different revenue models more viable, driving down the opportunity cost.

Of course, none of this addresses the quality problem. It's one thing to say "throw more engineers" but it's another entirely to create more good engineers.


I've wondered how necessary it is for colleges to force a $50k tuition on students. Where does the money actually go? I'm skeptical. The administration at university just seems like one big, disgusting fraud.


I was curious too, so I dug around and found this report from the Delta Cost Project, a nonprofit that studies this question (for US universities): http://deltacostproject.org/resources/pdf/trendsissuehighlig...

That is just the summary, there is a more complete report available too. The high points for me was that employee compensation accounts for 60-70% of costs, with increases there being driven by benefits (I assume this means health insurance costs rising), and that only 30-40% of that 60-70 is spent on instructional staff.


I attend CUNY Baruch in NYC. It is known for providing an excellent liberal art and business education in it's Zicklin school of business. The cost to students is about 5500 a year, and the city supplies another 11,000 or so a year per student. That's $16,500 total cost per student per year (not semester) for an excellent education, and this also funds research, buildings (in NYC, no less), and more. And many students receive large amounts of financial aid.

It is entirely possible for a school to give an excellent education for an order of magnitude less than the large schools do, and this is evidence to me that most schools are horrendously inefficient.


A better question is why law degrees cost as much as they do. Law is one of the cheapest subjects for a university to teach yet law is usually one of the most expensive.


Law = supply/demand. Lots of people want to study law (it's lucrative), and therefore they can up the rate.


I am aware universities can charge what they please for a law degree and that they benefit from exclusivity (less people studying means more money for the ones who do). But what if the price was reflective of the cost plus a profit instead of cost plus a very generous profit? Law is a cash cow for most universities. Do you think society would benefit from a greater supply of people knowledgeable and qualified in the field of law? Is a society better off with law in the hands of the many or of the few?


First year associates at NY law firms pay $165k + bonus. Current fourth years make close to $300k. 50k+ for three years is a good investment if you do above average at a top 10 school.


To be fair, engineers can get together, come up with an idea, and sell their product.

But I do agree with you about making liberal arts degrees cheaper. No one should get themselves into debt studying anthropology, for example.


Are you saying that liberal arts majors can't be entrepreneurial? It takes more than engineering prowess to make a successful product. Also, although science and engineering degrees do hold the promise of a higher-paying job after graduation, that is small comfort to the engineering student who finds himself struggling with a problem set late into the night while his friends are out partying.

As for going into debt. If you choose to take out student loans in order to study anthropology and find yourself in debt as a result, that was your own mistake, and you are ultimately responsible for it. Let's stop saying that it's "unfair" to not protect people from their own mistakes. Lowering the cost of liberal arts degrees will only lead to a greater surplus than what we have today.


Yeah, what a tragedy it would be to have too many engineers, doctors, or other useful people. If we want to plan for the future, we need more poets.

Liberal arts educations are expensive for the same reason lobster is expensive. They're a luxury item, nobody needs one. If you can afford to be a philosopher, you can afford a philosophy degree.


I would like to see the US government stop subsidizing majors and colleges that don't get results for their graduates.

Now there arises the problem of inadequate funding for the liberal arts majors. But as it is way too many people major in liberal arts and other impractical subjects. Lib arts should be a highly selective group, limited to scholarship recipients and any rich kid whose family has the money.

Treating all majors the same really hurts kids who come from working class backgrounds and might not know how society really works. Rarely will you be rewarded for learning for learning's sake. Major in engineering, accounting, nursing, etc. Then your future is pretty solid. Let's stop kidding ourselves about how our society values education.


As I and other have pointed out (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3197437), it's the liberal arts majors that subsidize the STEM programs at the undergraduate level because the per-credit tuition is roughly the same but it's cheaper to educate historians than molecular geneticists.

On another note, it's pretty distressing to see all these calls to drastically overhaul the university system when we're not even five years away from what was essentially an economic singularity (no pun intended).


You completely ignore the fact that STEM brings in research grants, which the university loots in the name of "overhead". I pointed this out also in a similar discussion. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2799626

At every university I've attended, STEM grants are used to subsidize university operations.


Addressed here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3197531

(btw, it's an honor to cross swords. You're one of the people I most frequently CTRL-F on any threads even vaguely related to economics or finance)


Delirium makes interesting points, but he neglects the fact that universities wildly overcharge for overhead.

The university basically provides two services in return for overhead: commercial real estate and outsourced HR. They vastly overcharge for both, and the excess beyond market rates for these services goes directly into the university budget.

Some real numbers (I was the grad student): a professor gets a $50k grant which he spends on a graduate student to be a research fellow for 1 year. The grad student gets $20k + benefits (roughly another $10k).

The university pockets the remaining $20k for incidentals and overhead. You seriously think loading the grad student into the HR system and making 24 direct deposits costs $20k?


> it's the liberal arts majors that subsidize the STEM programs at the undergraduate level because the per-credit tuition is roughly the same but it's cheaper to educate historians than molecular geneticists.

Umm, no, that doesn't prove your point because neither one pays their way during college (including loans). At best, that proves that LA majors are less subsidized than STEM majors.

If we look at where that money comes from, I doubt that we'll find that LA graduates are paying what it cost to educate them. I suspect that we'll find that STEM folk are.


I don't think you can count Liberal arts as "impractical" subjects. They may not be "job oriented" but I believe having a foundation in the liberal arts does allow for perhaps a broader education than focusing on a very narrow (albeit deep) technical field from a young age. Maybe some people are better suited to be generalists as opposed to specialists? I don't think restricting a Liberal Arts education for "those who can pay" is a good idea.

In Japan, some companies (especially in banking) hire people to work as generalists. They tend to rotate through a variety of roles as their career progresses. I don't think it is the most efficient allocation of resources, but it does make for employees who have a wider view of the business, and more importantly a network and contacts across a variety of fields.

Like most people commenting here, I have a very specialized technical education (Comp Sci major), but I actually wonder if my education could have been a little broader. I learnt most of what I know at work anyway!!


Perhaps you aren't suggesting exactly this, but I don't understand the commonly-held view that those in technical majors don't have a 'broad education'. Most people I've known in technical majors have as broad an education as any liberal-arts major I know. I personally feel that even in the absence of breadth requirements (which at my university are non-trivial), most of my classmates would be as well-educated as they are now, simply because they have the ability to read and absorb information.

Students who go to college and get a liberal-arts education often don't retain their major-specific knowledge once they move into the job market and into a role that has nothing to do with what they studied. What they are supposed to retain though, is learning- and critical-thinking skills that make them better at various jobs than someone who did not go to college at all. And that same learning- and critical-thinking ability is something technical majors also develop quite well - hence I don't see a liberal arts education as having a monopoly on developing 'generalists' or really providing any advantage in that regard.

Naturally this is also a problem of efficient allocation. I think there is value in the knowledge produced by every field - however we require different levels of supply for different skills/knowledge - and I would further argue that this variation in demand for skills has always existed throughout human history. Since society is both funding education and creating this demand, it makes sense to me that we meet that demand partly by creating the correct supply of variously-educated citizens.


> I would like to see the US government stop subsidizing majors and colleges that don't get results for their graduates.

We do this somewhat (though not in the same way) in Australia. Degrees in fields of high demand are subsidized; in short, if you take a government loan (aka HECS/HELP debt), you owe less at the end of it. It's a good way to promote studying fields that deliver, but it doesn't prevent those with the desire to study arts degrees from doing so.


way too many people think that the only purpose of education is to earn money. It isn't. Education has intrinsic value.


Education's general value is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Once you have learned to critically study and learn a subject of your choosing the value of education is mostly related to the value of what you produce from what you've learned. A hermit who learns the secrets of the universe and doesn't share is of no real value. A history (or engineering) major who doesn't learn how to apply what they've studied is of little use. I think it's just generally easier for engineering majors, or business majors to apply what they've learned.


The problem is people complect education with college, most egregiously in the private sector with companies requiring BS/BA degrees to do any job (and reasonably above minimal wage). In the US, most education is free or nearly so, especially in the humanities, if you're willing to do it on your own. College on the other hand is obscenely expensive, both in opportunity costs as well as the actual loans and so on. In order to combat that expense, you should have "something to show for it" that's applicable in the job market when you're done. The purpose of college has become making money, via getting that piece of paper, social connections, etc. If you sign up for a liberal arts degree priced at $100k, you're doing a bad job at making money (and a pretty bad job at educating depending on where you go--even with Computer Science if you pick a bad school you could have learned everything and more in 1 year that the school took 4 years to teach you). Since you're doing a bad job, you should be mocked in the way a person whose goal is to profit in a yard sale and who ends up paying people to take stuff away, should be mocked.


Agreed. Education is a hobby – and that is a good thing.

Hobbies always are to the betterment of the person engaging in them. Hobbies can, and often do, lead to high paying jobs and careers. Hobbies lead you to meet all kinds of interesting people who will shape your future. Hobbies are, if nothing else, enjoyable.

We just need to not lose sight of the fact that you should never bank your future on a hobby. Starting a band has made a lot of people incredibly wealthy, but that doesn't mean your band will find success. Do it because you love it, not because you want to be rich. There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself to be successful, else everyone would be.


This is a little disheartening. It'll prevent people from expanding their mind in the subject area that they want, and instead, they're told that they should be studying sciences, engineering, business, or something else that'll be more "useful."

Undoubtedly, I can see why China's doing it. It's utilitarian. College is already (wrongly) seen as "job training," and this will deepen that. But the number of jobs filled is one of many measures of "useful," and this threatens to make it the only one. Nobody can predict what will come of that. Telling people that they can only pursue a certain set of majors because they're useful, and if they don't like any of them, then too bad, seems a little nearsighted.


Someone should start a website to anonymously survey the following for US grads:

1. Years since graduation 2. Major 3. University 4. Employed/Unemployed in related field 5. GPA

At least this way, there could be some basis in informed decision making by potential students.


There is a WSJ table that lists data for majors, but not universities.

http://graphicsweb.wsj.com/documents/NILF1111/

There's a website listing more detailed data on UK grads.

http://unistats.direct.gov.uk/


From the piece:

Chinese have questioned whether someone like Apple founder Steve Jobs could ever emerge from an education system that seeks to push down students who stand out from the crowd.

Do they not realize Jobs was a dropout??


This is my favorite quote:

"Many university professors in China are unhappy with the Ministry of Education’s move"

The author goes on to make a weak argument about demand in distant future, but we all know which professors are upset, those that teach subjects which do not generate jobs for their students. (Most likely they are there teaching because they themselves couldn't get jobs in their field)

*I realize that this is a harsh view, but it is worth mentioning even though it is a little extreme.


Sounds like they're looking for a system where the Steve Jobs' of the world have what they need in school to become successful. There are probably a lot of Steve Jobs' who do drop out, but going through years of college drained their enthusiasm.


What Jobs needed to become successful was to drop out, start a company, get kicked out of said company, hit bottom, and wander around in India for awhile. None of that requires a degree.

Woz also lacked any sort of degree when he worked for HP and Apple. He only went back for his BSEE after he'd already made his mark.


I think the most interesting question here will be how will they account for people who don't end up working in the subject area they studied. There are tons of those in the west, I can't imagine it's very different in the east. How would those stats be calculated and would it hurt or help certain majors? Sadly, not a lot of info available.


This graph (linked to from the article) on majors and popularity/salary/unemployment rate is quite interesting: http://graphicsweb.wsj.com/documents/NILF1111/#term=


est's comment (which may be true) notwithstanding, this does not surprise me. China is a communist country of the Cold War mold, if not in all the particulars, then at least in some of its centralist, autocratic ways. Communist countries of this type have outright told people what they should study, to fill particular state needs. That there is freedom to choose in China is a sign of course that this is 2011, not 1970, but still... it makes this kind of thing not at all shocking.


Every day, I see more and more evidence that the Chinese economy is going to eat us alive.


I think more industries need to adopt the tradesmen style apprenticeship before allowing someone to pursue post-secondary education. They should also be forced to employ apprentices before being able to hire someone with a degree -- too many students exit university with no real-world experience or any idea what their work will be like once their degree is complete.

If you really, really want to do a 3 year philosophy degree, I think should at least have to do a year as an apprentice philosopher.


I would love if the United States modified and did this. Do the research on what majors pay and lead to what outcomes - and then shove those results in high school senior's faces often (instead of forcing the majors closed).


As if math and science isn't force fed enough. My business partner was accused of padding his grades in high school because he was good at art and wanted to take more art classes.

Shoving this sort of stuff in high schoolers faces is exactly what kills the drive to learn. How many times do you remember that classmate in the back of the room saying something along the lines of, "Why am I learning this, I'll never use this in real life?" Did you ever think that maybe they were right?

I don't know about you, but I'd rather see a country full of people struggling to do something they are passionate about than a country full of people successfully doing something that makes them miserable.


This sort of thing only leads to "bubbles" in certain fields, actually lowering the value of the degree and making it harder to find a job once you graduate.


why? college is not a job training facility and shouldn't be treated like one. high school's goal is to provide a broad education so a graduate can have the basic knowledge necessary to function in society. not everyone goes to college.


In the US, people are encouraged to go to college so that they can get higher-paying jobs. It's seen as a job training facility.


This discussion reveals one of the problems with our system of higher education: for some people it's one thing, for others it's something else.

Colleges are like companies that are trying to do two very different things at once: broad education and job training.

In the world of startups we know what to do when that happens: Choose one direction and go with it, stop trying to be all things to all people. Blended business models rarely work.

My guess is that something similar will eventually happen in education. Some institutions will specialize in getting you a paycheck and others will specialize in broader education.

I view purely academic coursework in the same category as other luxury goods: it's something some people find fun and exciting and if they want to pay for it, so be it, but society should not foot the bill.

Whereas practical "get a job" coursework I view as something that just about everybody needs and maybe there's a good argument for public subsidies or other policies that encourage it.


Market forces aren't good enough for them :P




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