The traditional educational services sector in the United States, and world at large, was not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, including institutions of higher education, leading to significant disruptions in learning outcomes and budgets. Notified at the last minute, many students found themselves having to pack up their bags and leave campus dorms—sometimes with nowhere to go. Although the dust is still settling, four-year colleges might experience a 20 percent decline in fall enrollment, accelerating a trend already in place since 2011. In fact, 500 to 1,000 colleges might be put completely out of business.
These new challenges add to already deteriorating outcomes among college graduates, ranging from an all-time high of nearly $1.6 trillion in student debt as of 2020 to a flattening college wage premium. Moreover, a national 2018 survey of employers found that only around 40 percent say that recent college graduates exhibit professionalism, a good work ethic, and have decent oral and written communication, and only 33 percent say that recent graduates possess leadership skills. This is particularly concerning given that soft skills and their combination with technical skills are becoming more important than ever.
One of the potential factors behind these deteriorating outcomes stems from the increasing proliferation of degree programs that are disconnected from the needs of the labor market. In fact, according to data from Burning Glass Technologies, 13 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs were posted online for every unemployed worker in 2016, amounting to roughly three million more jobs than there were workers to fill them. Our calculations using the American Community Survey from the Census Bureau between 2009 and 2018 reveal that the fraction of graduates earning a liberal arts degree remained roughly the same at 20 percent, suggesting that colleges and students made little adjustment to the changing demands of the labor market during these years.
That’s not to say that the liberal arts are irrelevant—the ability to work effectively with others is increasingly important—but perhaps that the definition of liberal arts has become increasingly ambiguous with precarious economic payoffs for some of these degree programs. For example, whereas degrees in women’s studies grew by 12 percent between 2014 and 2017, degrees in economics only grew by seven percent. And yet, a degree in gender studies has a mid-career payoff of $57,100, compared with economics and applied mathematics, which have mid-career payoffs of $107,800 and $113,900 respectively.
While publicly available data does not seem to exist to identify the source of the increasing proliferation of degree programs, many students have been funneled into degree programs without an accurate representation of what they are going to learn and their post-graduation labor market prospects. And Gallup has shown on a sample of 30,000 respondents that the lack of engagement during university is closely linked with a negative perception about the college experience—not to mention experiencing other negative post-graduation outcomes, such as underemployment or low wages.
Despite the increasing ambiguity on college campuses, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Core liberal arts programs provide integral services in the creative economy—as of 2018, 34 percent of college graduates in the arts and entertainment sector had a liberal arts degree (compared with 15 percent for STEM).
Moreover, gross domestic product in the arts and cultural sectors has routinely grown faster than the rest of the economy. While the data is not yet out, it’s likely that these “creatives” have played a key role in providing calming and engaging media content during the ongoing pandemic as well, given that information services “was the leading contributor to the overall growth in arts and cultural production at the national level in 2017, followed by design services.”
But the current teaching model in higher education, particularly the liberal arts, has become increasingly disconnected from the demands of the labor market. That’s perhaps most clearly observed in music programs, which, despite decreasing local infrastructure and shrinking opportunities for young artists, continue to show growth in national enrollment rates with over 3,600 music programs offering training in Voice and Opera in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects zero growth for musicians and singers from 2018 to 2028, yet completions of degree programs in music grew by 3.5 percent between 2012 and 2017 to nearly 27,000 students.
These trends are present in Europe too, which has historically been considered the best labor market for emerging opera singers. The Bertelsmann Stiftung, an independent foundation based in Gütersloh, Germany, conducted a study in 2019 entitled “Opera singers with a future,” documenting a 20 percent decrease in employment for fest angestellte positions—that is, full-time positions for singers in German opera houses. They attributed this decline to the lack of training they received in so-called “secondary skills,” such as marketing, media training, and networking.
While the German hochschule approach is quite similar to elite degree programs offered in top US schools, like Juilliard, and the musical training itself is considered high quality, both approaches have a fatal flaw: Most do not prepare students for the realities of competing in the current state of the music business. While this may have less impact on German students who pay little to nothing for a semester of education and can easily go on to study other subjects, this is catastrophic for American graduates who pay up to $45,000 per year, only to find themselves unable to break into a saturated job market.
Traditional subjects, such as music theory and composition, are compulsory in many undergraduate programs. And, even if they contribute to the overall academic competency of music students, the data do not suggest that this knowledge gives students a marketable edge when it comes to actually making a living. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that musicians earn a median hourly wage of $30 without any formal education at all.
While elective courses in business and entrepreneurship with respect to classical music are offered in some US degree programs, the pervasive attitude among many students and professors is one of resistance when it comes to integrating business and technology in course offerings. Critics often argue that such skills and/or programs shift the concentration of a student’s training from pure artistry to something less pure—something that is more mundane and practical.
To disrupt this pattern and deliver better value to an increasingly diverse set of learners, we need a new model of higher education. One such is the New American University by Arizona State University President Michael Crow, but it’s a model that a few institutions of higher education have adopted. If universities of higher learning are going to remain relevant, they need to embrace the challenge of our era and start focusing on driving improvements in student outcomes across the board.
That means abandoning the silos that define the hiring and promotion process in the tenure track; empowering faculty with technology to serve more students at an even higher quality; clearly defining success according to measurable outcomes; working with the private sector to make learning experiential and the educational curriculum more tailored to the evolving needs of the marketplace.
Perhaps one silver lining of COVID-19 is that it may raise competition in higher education. Many of the traditional institutions had a near monopoly on learning—if you want to signal to employers that you’re “the best,” you go to Stanford or Harvard. But the pandemic has led to an explosion of interest in online learning. And many learners are actually asking whether virtual learning provides them with at least as good an experience, if not better (and cheaper), than the norm. Moreover, entrepreneurial startups are emerging to directly work with students and address practical needs and skill gaps. That’s especially relevant for new or recent graduates entering a saturated labor market during a pandemic.
While the pandemic has been challenging for everyone, let’s hope the disruption that is taking place in higher education is the beginning of a broader reform movement that refocuses the emphasis on the learner and how instructors and faculty can empower them to create value in the marketplace.
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