Unexpectedly Intriguing!
June 18, 2008

Via The Door this morning comes this commentary on mandatory liberal arts requirements from the Adjunct Professor of English "X" (emphasis ours):

My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses. For many of my students, this is difficult. Some of the young guys, the police-officers-to-be, have wonderfully open faces across which play their every passing emotion, and when we start reading “Araby” or “Barn Burning,” their boredom quickly becomes apparent. They fidget; they prop their heads on their arms; they yawn and sometimes appear to grimace in pain, as though they had been tasered. Their eyes implore: How could you do this to me?

Cap and Diploma The reason many colleges mandate that students take courses such as these that offer very limited, if any, utility to the academic path chosen by the students is because if they didn't, the academic disciplines in question would not be able to support themselves. Only by subsidizing these academic departments by requiring that all students at a university take them can they justify continuing the level of funding needed to provide the payroll for these departments at the levels they do.

One way to measure the value of a given academic discipline is to examine the starting salaries of those who graduate with degrees in given fields, which we recently did for the graduating class of 2008. Here, we can see that the so-called liberal arts disciplines would appear to be less valued by employers than more practical or productive fields.

As a side note, we do recognize Daniel Hamermesh's findings that a good portion of the discrepancy between the starting salaries of various academic disciplines may be due to certain fields drawing students with higher demonstrated levels of academic performance, as may be indicated by higher SAT scores when entering college, and also that many of these higher paying fields require greater levels of work from those entering them, in the form of longer hours and greater productivity, than those that typically correspond to the liberal arts. In short, starting salaries tend to be proportional to a student's innate abilities and willingness to execute and perform at the levels demanded by their employers, in addition to the value employers or society places upon the academic discipline itself.

So if we want to find out how valuable a particular discipline is with respect to another, we need to look beyond starting salaries. And one way we might be able to do that is to see to what extent those majoring in one academic discipline are mandated to take classes in other academic disciplines. Using this approach, we can see how university administrators themselves value the various academic disciplines.

For example, if an Engineering major is required to take two English classes, but an English major is not required to take any Engineering classes, we can verify that the engineering student is being effectively required to subsidize the operation of the university's English department. The more one-way the mandated class requirements are for outside-of-major courses, the less valuable the particular field is, otherwise campus administrators would not need to effectively subsidize it so heavily to support its continued operation.

Since Craig Newmark led off his post with a humorous complaint written to Arizona State University President Michael Crow, we thought we'd take a look at the undergraduate outside of major course requirements for students in ASU's Engineering department, since Engineering majors often rank at the top for real-world starting salaries for college graduates. The table below presents the out-of-major class requirements we identified for ASU's general Civil Engineering program and ASU's English degree. To be included in this table, the out-of-major classes could not be a prerequisite for an in-major class. Some may overlap with in-major elective offerings.

Out-of-Major Course Requirements
Category Civil Engineering (Credits) English (Credits)
Basic (Lab) Science 3
Recommended options applicable to Civil Engineering, but not mandated.
3
"Cultural Diversity" Awareness 3 3
May be satisfied by overlap with In-Major electives.
Computing/Statistics In-Major 3
English 6 In-Major
"Global" Awareness 3
May be satisfied by overlap with Humanities requirements.
3
May be satisfied by overlap with Second Language requirements.
"Historical" Awareness 3
May be satisfied by overlap with In-Major elective.
3
May be satisfied by overlap with In-Major electives.
Humanities 6 6
May be satisfied by overlap with In-Major electives.
Mathematics In-Major 3
Second Language None 9
Social Behavorial Sciences 6
Economics (3) is required.
6
Total Out-of-Major Credits Required (Adjusted for Elective Requirement Overlaps) 24 27

If we exclude the second language requirement for ASU's English majors, which does not apply for ASU's engineering students, we find that ASU's Engineering majors are required to earn far more credits outside their discipline than are English majors, at 24 credits as opposed to 18. This difference demonstrates that English majors do not have to go as far outside their discipline to fully satisfy their academic program's degree requirements.

Altogether, these requirements would suggest that ASU's academic administrators rank the school's Engineering programs above its English program, with little requirement to subsidize the engineering programs by compelling students outside the discipline to take classes within it.

Going back to the second language requirement for English majors, we do find that, in effect, English majors have to "pad out" their schedules to support/subsidize the school's second language programs, with nearly the equivalent of an extra semester of work. Meanwhile, the school's "Awareness" requirements for both Engineering and English degrees (spanning course topics involving Global, Historical, or Cultural Diversity "awareness") would seem to be a strong indication that without such mandates from the school's administration, students would not pursue classes focusing on these areas, recognizing they possess little real benefit for progressing toward their academic goals.

The university could, we suppose, discontinue its efforts to offer such lowly-valued degree programs, eliminating the need to subsidize these academic departments through forcing students outside these disciplines to take classes within them. For many university administrators however, this would mean acknowledging that their vision of being a "world-class" institution is flawed, which we suspect makes this otherwise reasonable and realistic step unlikely to occur. Never mind that sustaining such programs does at least as much damage, if not more damage, to their institution's "world-class" aspirations.

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