Gov. Matt Bevin furrowed many eyebrows on Kentucky’s college campuses this week by suggesting that public universities should deal with shrinking state support by getting rid of majors and programs that don’t produce graduates ready to fill high-paying jobs.
“If you’re studying interpretive dance, God bless you, but there’s not a lot of jobs right now in America looking for people with that as a skill set,” he said Tuesday at a higher education conference. “There’s a whole lot of kids sitting in their parents’ basements and competing with people for jobs that are minimum wage or a bit better who have four-year degrees, some of them graduate-level degrees. Some from the very universities that you all represent.”
Anecdotes about unemployed college graduates living in Mom’s basement might sell well politically, but the numbers don’t add up, said Chris Bollinger, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research.
In general, research shows that people with college degrees have higher earnings and a pretty low chance of being unemployed. The commonwealth’s problem is much simpler: There aren’t enough college graduates, period.
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In Kentucky, only 45 percent of the working age population has any kind of college degree, compared to 52.9 percent nationwide.
That statistic has a huge impact on the state’s economy, because people with only high school degrees are far less likely to be participating in the labor force.
In a research paper last year, Bollinger found that people with any degree beyond high school are more likely to be employed in Kentucky, including Eastern Kentucky, which has been battered by a foundering coal industry. Based on 2013 unemployment rates, he found that those with college degrees in Eastern Kentucky had an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, well below the national unemployment rate at the time of 8.3 percent. For those without a degree, the unemployment rate soared to 13 percent.
Statewide, only 5.1 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees were unemployed, compared to 9.9 percent for those with only high school degrees.
Jobs held by college graduates also pay better.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings of someone with a high school diploma in 2016 were $692, compared to $1,156 for someone with a bachelor’s degree. Over a lifetime, the average person with a bachelor’s degree will make $1 million more than the average high school graduate.
It’s true that Kentuckians who graduate with arts and humanities degrees make less than those who graduate with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees, according to the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce. Seven years after graduation, those with arts and humanities degrees have a median income of $31,670 in Kentucky. For STEM graduates, the median income is $51,187, which is only slightly above the median wage of $50,101 for education majors.
“Not everyone is going to be an engineer,” Bollinger said. “People with the kind of math skills and the kind of science skills to major in engineering will earn more no matter what you do with them. So yes, the financial return to engineering is higher than the return to social sciences, but all of them have a positive return.”
Social workers, for example, often make dismal salaries and “don’t generate a high private return, but we generally agree they do provide a large benefit to the public,” said Andrew Hanson, a senior analyst at the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. “In the case of the arts, they are low-paying, but we generally agree they are indirectly serving the public by generating creativity and art.”
Hanson said that nationally, he hasn’t heard of universities cutting costs by targeting majors or programs whose graduates earn low wages. Bevin’s words, though, are “tapping into a broad section of the population who feel animosity or resentment toward colleges and graduates because they feel disconnected.”
A matter of choice
Bollinger has another problems with Bevin’s remarks: They seem to ignore the choices that students are making.
“Economists are very big on letting people make their own decisions and paths in life,” he said. “It’s a basic free market outlook. When you start saying what kind of majors people should pick, that’s a slippery slope.”
And, in fact, Kentucky students appear to agree with Bevin that they need to major in programs more suited to high-paying jobs.
Statewide, between 2006 and 2015, the number of STEM and health-related degrees across all levels of higher education and all public and private schools jumped 50 percent, according to the Council on Postsecondary Education. In 2015, those degrees made up more than a third of all degrees produced statewide.
A recent survey of more than 50,000 Kentucky high school students who took the ACT college-readiness test found that the most dominant career interest for Kentucky students is health sciences and technologies, chosen by 20 percent of students. Eight percent chose engineering fields, 4 percent picked biological and physical sciences, and 3 percent said they plan to major in computer science and mathematics. In comparison, 7 percent chose visual and performing arts, and 1 percent or less picked English and foreign languages; ethnic and multidisciplinary studies; or philosophy, religion and theology.
In addition, decreased state funding has caused some schools to cut programs and majors that don’t attract enough students anymore. Last year, Eastern Kentucky University ended degrees in comparative humanities, an English/theater concentration, French, French teaching, and MBA concentrations in accounting and integrated communications.
“We want to be able to continue investing in successful programs for which we know there is a demand,” Provost Janna Vice said at the time.
At the University of Kentucky, STEM degrees have increased 22 percent over the past six years, said spokesman Jay Blanton, and other popular majors include business and nursing.
“Employers also tell us they need graduates who communicate well, think critically and work well in teams,” Blanton said. “These ‘soft skills’ are exactly what students learn in majors and classes in English, history, the humanities and fine arts, among others. We continually review our course and program offerings to ensure we position our students with the substantive knowledge and interpersonal skills necessary to compete and succeed.”
Bevin has made his priorities clear in words and deeds, denigrating French literature and interpretive dance majors while shaping major policy changes to improve work-force training programs. Those include a $15 million scholarship program for high school students who take college classes; a scholarship program allowing people to get certificates in specialized areas of manufacturing, health and STEM; and a $100 million pot of money to finance workforce training programs proposed by educators and employers.
His administration also was deeply involved in revamping the state’s higher education funding model, which now financially rewards or punishes schools based on the number of STEM degrees they produce, among other things.
Bollinger agrees with the governor that colleges and universities need to do a better job of informing students about the career possibilities and earnings potentials of various majors.
“Universities are very poor at helping students look at broader sets of options,” he said. “We are dealing with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who don’t always want to listen, but I think maybe we should be talking a little more: If I major in this, what do I do with it?”
But Robert Grossman, a chemistry professor at UK who also is on the UK Board of Trustees, said most students get it.
“That’s why we have a lot more biology majors than English majors,” he said. “Students don’t need the government to tell them what their majors should be.”