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Art - The Best Major

by Tod Massa 7. December 2013 10:10

What would I major in today? What would I tell someone else?

The last few weeks I have been thinking about choices of majors and degrees. This was particularly true last weekend after going through a number of video blogs about college being a bad choice, and certain majors being worse choices.

I don’t know that I would change my college experience, other than to take advantage of more opportunities on campus. I started out as a physics and math double major with a minor in military science. In my second spring I dropped out for a sabbatical in the Army. I followed that by completing a degree in art, specifically painting and jewelry.

For me, this worked extremely well. More than anything, art is about problem-solving. Combining it with experience in other disciplines can make it an effective course of study for someone like me - especially if the expectation after college is not limited to working as an artist.

I am a big fan of the liberal arts. A good liberal arts program can free an individual from being tied to a very specific job or career requiring narrow skills that can go out of date. However, not everyone possesses the right personality to take advantage of the liberal arts. A strong tolerance of ambiguity, flexibility, and patience seem to me to be key personality prerequisites. Clearly some individuals are more oriented to business or highly technical fields.

In Joplin, the nearest community college was Crowder Community College in Neosho. I didn’t know anything about its offerings, but I suspect some of them would have appealed to me. After all, I have spent a fair amount of time over the years learning a variety of skills in the trades and folk traditions. My father was a professor at the local four-year college and my step-mother and administrator at one across the state line, and so a four-year college was the natural path. If I had been a better student and more serious initially, going to a four-year college would have been the ideal choice that didn’t require an interrupted path to completion.

When I look at the array of community college offerings in place today, I am quite envious of the opportunities. I wish I had time to pick up a couple of credentials that I don’t need, but that I would find useful.

So, if someone asked me for advice about a college major and or degree, I would tell them to first consider carefully whether they need (or want) a defined path to a career, or if they are open whatever opportunities may present themselves. In 1992, at the Illinois Association for Institutional Research Fall Conference, I heard a college president give a keynote address about “management by opportunity.” It is a message that has stuck with me over the years and a concept that I have taken to heart. It is also something that allows one to really capitalize on a liberal arts background.

Sometimes one has to create opportunity for themself. By accident I did this in blending physics, math, military science theory and occupational specialties, and art. This combination set me on a path that worked well. It was, however, unplanned, and for someone else, potentially disastrous. With the cost of college today, it seems to me to be too risky to take such an unplanned route. This is why I think our reports on wage and debt outcomes are so important. 

Students should not select a major based solely on these data. They should use them to build a plan and understand the potential risks and outcomes of their choices. Using that information they can construct their own pathway of opportunities. If I was a student today and did not have a clear profession in mind, I would think seriously about completing both a liberal arts program and a high-demand associate degree. The additional cost of the associate degree is a fraction of the cost of the four-year degree and can provide comfort to those who are concerned about the immediate income possibilities after graduation.

I think there are so many opportunities to people after high school that is very difficult for young people to easily make choices. We need to improve formal and informal advising by continually improving the information available to students, families, counselors, teachers and faculty, the press, and everyone else involved in decision process. Policymakers need to be mindful of the wide array of people we need to make the economy and the country successful – it is not just about STEMH or high-earning occupations. Our focus on improving college affordability should always be mindful of that. Young, well-educated people working in meaningful lower-paying jobs for a few years is quite often a very good thing. I don’t think we want to lose that as it results in a stronger nation and gives these individuals necessary experience.

For the record, when I told my father I had become an art major, his response was, "What? You have never shown any talent!" I maintain one can learn anything with hard work and commitment - talent is rarely a prerequisite.


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