Opinion: Why does Uni value STEM majors more than humanities?

One of the phrases that I’ve heard a lot throughout my time at Uni is “Everyone thinks Uni is a STEM school but…” Interestingly, I never hear phrases like “Uni is a STEM school,” or “I came to Uni for STEM.” The question this always suggested for me is: where is the idea that Uni is a STEM school coming from? What is it leading people to do as they continue their education outside of Uni? Are people feeling pressured to pursue STEM when they wouldn’t otherwise because of Uni?

If you’re struggling to see Uni as a STEM school, you’re not alone. I know that I have always been very humanities oriented in my class preferences, and many of my friends are the same way. However, looking at proposed majors for students graduating from Uni between 2016 and 2020, 65% of them are STEM. Some graduating classes, like the class of 2016, have as many as 75% proposed STEM majors. Every class between 2016 and 2020 had majority STEM majors, and keep in mind here that this is not a case of either STEM or Humanities. Arts, Social Sciences, Media, Business, and Education all fall outside either of these two categories, but somehow our school landscape is completely dominated by Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Uni specifically, there are a couple of counterarguments that I can immediately foresee. The first argument is that STEM majors are just generally more common. This is false. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 18% of majors are in STEM fields. STEM majors do not make up even close to a majority. Uni’s average number of 65% is about 3.6 times the average national average, which makes Uni pretty anomalous.

The second argument that I hear is that STEM majors are more academically rigorous and discerning, and because Uni is a school that has rigorous academics it makes sense Uni students would want that same rigor going forward. This mindset betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the differences between STEM majors and other majors are. The choice in what to major in is not one of choosing a difficulty level, because difficulty level is much more individualized than we are led to believe. What will be challenging for different students depends a lot on their individual strengths. Additionally, it’s not like the only differences between STEM and other majors are doing math vs. not doing math. These programs provide you with different approaches to viewing the world, some more analytical, others more interpretive, and it also varies from school to school and program to program.

So, what is the real reason that Uni students keep choosing to go the STEM route? That is a very challenging question to answer, because there is a huge range of reasons why students pick the major that they do. The first, of course, is that they are just interested in it. I’m sure that this is the case for many Uni students, but it seems unlikely that it would cause this much of a statistical gap between Uni and the national average.

The second reason that comes to mind is outside pressure. Many Uni students have parents that work at the University of Illinois, many of whom work in STEM fields. We tend to shape our view of what a career can be based on the careers that we see, so it makes sense that many Uni students would follow in their parents’ footsteps. They might also experience pressure from peers, relatives, or even faculty or staff to pursue a major in STEM if they are good at it whether they are interested or not. There is also a very common misconception that non-STEM majors go on to be unemployed, or that a major in a non-STEM field is less valuable because it will lead to a less lucrative job. While I can’t debunk family or peer pressure, I can show you the stats on employment so you can decide for yourself whether you think majoring in STEM is what you want to do.

So, do humanities majors get jobs? Yes.

According to the Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Three Year Trends Report for 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20, the major with the highest percentage of people seeking jobs for 2017-18 was not English, or History, but actually Biological Sciences, at 25% seeking jobs. The lowest percentage for that year was Communication, at 4%, where majors like Astronomy and Physics had 8%.

I do want to note that these numbers had a good amount of fluctuation depending on the year. English, for example, had 17% seeking in 2017-18, 6% for 2018-19, and 10% for 2019-20. While no single year can paint us a complete picture of what the employment landscape looks like for certain majors, these trends are not showing a bias towards STEM when it comes to finding employment.

As for the income question, the average full-time employed LAS graduate from 2017-18 made $55,325 for the year. The average per-capita US income for 2016-2020 was $35,384. LAS graduates are making, on average, 1.6 times the average US citizen, as a group. Yes, English majors can get livable jobs—if you can believe it.

Regardless of all of this, it would be dishonest for me to make it look like all graduates are making the same amount of money. In 2017-18 the average full-time employed Astronomy and Physics majors who graduated from LAS were making 1.7 times what the average full-time employed English and Creative Writing majors were making. If that gives you pause, I understand why, but I would counter this point with the suggestion that just because something is socially or economically valued more than something else that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue it.

Additionally, I would wonder why students are so concerned with making the highest possible amount of money when in reality most all these averages are higher than the average per-capita US income anyway? Most people who go to college will make more money than the average person, no matter what they major in. And even further than that, I think that determining the course of your life based on chasing money and prestige is bad, and we shouldn’t do it. Money does not equal job satisfaction, especially if you’re working on something you really don’t want to be working on.

Even if you did come to Uni for STEM, you can always change course as you learn and grow throughout your time here. Majoring in humanities is not resigning yourself to a life of unemployment. Study what you’re interested in. It will be fine.