When the Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, suggested last month that students majoring in French literature should not receive state funding for their college education, he joined a growing number of elected officials who want to nudge students away from the humanities and toward more job-friendly subjects like electrical engineering.
Frustrated by soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology, more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and universities for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.
When it comes to dividing the pot of money devoted to higher education, at least 15 states offer some type of bonus or premium for certain high-demand degrees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors, there just will,” Mr. Bevin, a Republican, said after announcing his spending plan. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.”
Or, as Gov. Patrick McCrory of North Carolina once put it, higher-education funding should not be “based on butts in seats, but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”
What has incensed many educators is not so much the emphasis on work force development but the disdain for the humanities, particularly among Republicans. Several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for. The Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has called for more welders and fewer philosophers. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida criticized anthropologists, and Mr. McCrory belittled gender studies.
Democrats have, for the most part, avoided denouncing the humanities, but they have argued that education and training should be better aligned with the job market.
The Obama administration, for example, proposed, much to the horror of many in academia, rating the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities not only on measures like completion rates and student loan debt, but also on earnings after graduation. Dozens of states have already moved to performance-based goals that more closely tie a portion of their higher education funding to particular outcomes like degrees earned or courses completed.
But the particular focus on jobs and earnings — originally limited to vocational programs and community colleges — is gaining momentum.
“There’s a deeper question of what public money should be used for,” said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce.
Education tends to be justified in terms of personal exploration and fulfillment, as well as creating informed citizens who make a functioning democracy possible. The humanities have traditionally been seen as crucial to both endeavors.
“The problem is that education is now the principal determinant of earnings, and we pay no attention to it at all. That’s gone too far,” Mr. Carnevale said. “There’s a lot of buyers’ regret out there.”
Mr. Carnevale argues that there should be much more information available to students about employment and wage prospects before they choose a major so that they can make informed choices. “We don’t want to take away Shakespeare. We’re just talking about helping people make good decisions,” he said. “You can’t be a lifelong learner if you’re not a lifelong earner.”
A graduate with a higher-earning degree could make up to $4 million more in lifetime earnings than other college graduates, Mr. Carnevale said. Most of the top earners in the liberal arts end up matching only the bottom earners in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — known as the STEM fields — and some will earn less than high school graduates who have vocational skills, like welders and mechanics.
A recent salary survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a nonprofit membership organization that connects campus career officers with business recruiters, found once again that new STEM graduates were expected to command the highest overall average salaries in 2016. New engineers, for example, are expected to earn nearly $65,000 a year.
Earnings by Degree
Those who graduate with degrees in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — are expected to command the highest salaries.
Projected average salary by discipline
2016 bachelor’s graduates
Math and sciences
The average salary for new graduates who majored in humanities — including French literature — is projected to increase slightly from last year to $46,065, up from $45,042. Although data is more limited, these graduates seem to attract the most interest from employers in finance, insurance and real estate, the survey found. The average for social science majors is $46,585.
But informing students better is one thing. Penalizing certain majors in the form of reduced funding is another.
In his address to the Kentucky General Assembly, Mr. Bevin said, “The net result of putting public tax dollars into education is to ensure that we actually are graduating people that can go into the work force.”
Not surprisingly, humanities professors were among the most vocal critics of Mr. Bevin’s remarks. In an op-ed article last month in The Lexington Herald-Leader, Jeffrey N. Peters, who teaches French literature at the University of Kentucky, noted that Mr. Bevin graduated from the liberal arts university Washington and Lee with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and East Asian Studies after studying abroad in Japan.
“I would like to thank Bevin for drawing on that formative experience to remind Kentuckians during his Tuesday budget presentation that the study of world languages, literatures and cultures is a valuable pursuit that has led countless college students to successful careers in education, business, international relations, the arts and — as his own story demonstrates — public service,” Mr. Peters wrote.
Mr. Bevin’s office offered few details about precisely how the funding formula would work. But in general, the trend of reducing funding the humanities and providing added incentives for STEM majors at public institutions would mean that a liberal arts education would be increasingly limited to those who could afford to attend expensive private institutions.
Other critics expressed concerns about allowing government officials to pick work force winners and losers.
“We are not good at predicting what jobs are going to be required in five years and 10 years down the road,” said Debra Humphreys, a senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She worries that underfunding the humanities will not only undermine educational quality but be bad economic policy. “You run a huge risk when you say you are going to divert money from this major to that major.”
Research by the association shows that employers are not as focused on individual majors as they are on the kind of broad-based analytic, communications and problem-solving skills that a humanities education specializes in, Ms. Humphreys said.
The question of whether to reward colleges for turning out STEM graduates or for higher job placement rates has generated a lot of debate in Tennessee, where all of the state’s higher education funding is tied to various performance measures, said Russ Deaton, the interim executive director of Tennessee’s Higher Education Commission.
“I’m not sure I trust myself to decide which degree programs or which fields deserve that premium and what that premium should be,” Mr. Deaton said.
“A lot of the feedback we get from employers is not only about the necessity of technical skills, but the soft skills as well — the ability to think creatively, to work in groups, things that you traditionally get in the liberal arts,” he said. “It’s not as simple as STEM is valued and worthy of incentives and everything else is not.”