Brian Maffly
February 4, 2011

The state is wasting billions of dollars conferring “degrees to nowhere” on college students because higher education is badly “misaligned” with the work force, according to an influential lawmaker.

Sen. Howard Stephenson’s presentation to the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday fueled an ongoing debate about the value of liberal arts, long viewed as the cornerstone to a well-rounded education. Stephenson, R-Draper, contends too few students are graduating in scientific and technical fields and that jobs are going unfilled as a result.

Stephenson, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, argued that Utah’s colleges and universities should be graduating more students in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math. He proposed spending $8 million on a “web portal” for students, educators and employers to share information about career opportunities and the needed pathways to reach them.

“We need to be more student-centric. Instead, we are institution-centric. Each is in its own silo, and information is not shared,” said the senator, who holds degrees in psychology and aerospace studies from Brigham Young University. Implicit in his “degree to nowhere” argument is the notion that the humanities and social sciences are a drain on higher-education resources and don’t help students get jobs.

Several college and university presidents sat quietly behind Stephenson during his hourlong presentation. They included Utah State’s Stan Albrecht, who holds a degree in sociology from BYU; the University of Utah’s Michael Young, political science, BYU; Utah Valley’s Matthew Holland, political science, BYU; and Snow College’s Scott Wyatt, economics and philosophy, Utah State.

None rose to rebut Stephenson, but in a phone interview after the meeting, Southern Utah University’s Michael Benson challenged Stephenson’s assumption that a liberal-arts degree leads “nowhere.”

“On our campus, where we place heavy emphasis on traditional liberal arts and sciences, we believe any college student should have a breadth of exposure, as well as drilling down into one discipline,” Benson said. “One thing I learned as a history and English major, some of the most enlivening experiences were those that taught me how to write, think, reason, argue my point and listen to others’ perspectives.”

The liberal arts might not always lead directly to a particular job, but they connect students to their cultural heritage and promote civic engagement.

“When the pioneers got [to Utah], they had nothing. What was the first thing they did? They founded the University of Deseret to teach those very things — literature, art, philosophy,” Benson said.

Meanwhile, programs abound in Utah to promote interest in science education. In 2008-09 (the most recent figures available), 1,757 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), compared with 1,755 in the humanities, in about 12,000 bachelor’s degrees awarded on Utah public campuses.

Some college presidents say inadequate facilities are operating at capacity to meet robust undergraduate interest in chemistry and biology. It was only last year that lawmakers agreed to fund UVU’s long-needed science building, while U. chemistry students toil in 50-year-old labs from morning until midnight, six days a week.

“We are keeping test tubes together with duct tape,” the U.’s Young told the subcommittee.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Odgen, responded that the U.’s priorities might be askew if it has to run labs Saturdays, suggesting that more labs could be offered if less was spent on social-science programs.

But a university needs to offer a well-rounded study menu, Young countered.

“It’s people taking psychology and history courses,” he said, citing two popular U. majors, “that provide the resources to support STEM degrees.”

John Allen, USU’s dean of humanities and social sciences, pointed to a 2010 national survey of employers that indicated they want job applicants with excellent communications skills.

In addition to graduates trained in the sciences, employers are looking for people with knowledge of human cultures, global issues, cultural diversity and civic engagement.

“They also wanted people with skills in critical thinking, quantitative analysis and complex problem solving. That’s what we do in a liberal education,” said Allen, a professor of sociology, in an interview. “We bring that extra ability to integrate knowledge across fields and understand macro-issues. We bring in the ethical decision-making process.”

He said modern college graduates will change careers five or more times in their lives, while their unemployment rates are half those of people with only a high school diploma.

“Graduating with technical training might get you the first job, but it won’t give you skills to adapt to new jobs,” Allen said.

At the U., no branch awards more degrees than the College of Humanities, housing its departments of languages and literatures, English, history, philosophy and communications.

Virtually every student passes through its courses on their way to graduation. Allen’s college is the second largest at USU, behind education.

“There must be a supply-and-demand thing here,” Allen said. “If no one is getting jobs, it wouldn’t take long for us to not be the second-largest college on campus.”

Stephenson and other lawmakers are concerned that so few of Utah’s students take science and technology when that’s where the best jobs are.

He noted that 2,700 high school seniors passed advanced-placement calculus last year, but only 126 were intent on a STEM major.

“I’m not against liberal arts, but students need to go into it with eyes wide-open and figure out if that’s what they really want to do,” Stephenson said. “We are losing billions of dollars because students are realizing too late that they wish they had information they needed earlier.”

What Utah students study

In 2008-09, Utah’s public colleges and universities awarded 12,630 bachelor’s degrees. Here are the top majors:

2,205 • Business and marketing

2,065 • Social sciences (psychology, sociology, public administration, economics, political science, anthropology)

1,757 • STEM fields (engineering, life sciences, computer science, physical science, math)*

1,755 • Humanities (communication, history, philosophy and languages)

1,314 • Education

1,068 • Health fields

*Breakdown of STEM degrees

650 • Engineering

437 • Life sciences

355 • Computer science

209 • Physical sciences

109 • Math

Source • Utah System of Higher Education