Millennials, we're told, are shallow careerists who don't understand the value of a liberal arts education. The truth though is that in many cases it's not students who are abandoning the arts and humanities, it's their parents. And thanks to skyrocketing college costs, parents arguably have more power over their kids' choices than ever before.
The number of English majors has fallen by almost 50 percent since the end of the 1990s. And many writers, like history professor Benjamin Schmidt at the Atlantic, have expressed concerns in recent years that the next generation of students doesn't understand the importance of a broad, liberal arts education.
When I started asking people about this phenomenon on social media, however, I heard a different story. People were reluctant to go on the record for fear of embarrassing their parents or straining their relationships. But current and former students told me their parents had absolutely forbidden them to pursue interests in the humanities, on pain of losing financial support. For example, one student noted how she had discovered a passion for animation in college only to have her parents insist she finish an engineering degree instead. She did, but hated every minute of it.
I'm not the only one who has heard this. Matt Gabriele, head of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, says he regularly speaks with students who want to pursue a major in his department but are afraid that their parents will stop supporting them if they do. And these fears are not hyperbole. One of his students was actually kicked out of her house and disowned when she told her family she was majoring in religion.
"There's a very practical view of this in many parents' minds," Gabriele told me. "You do the thing that you major in. So if you're going to major in history or religion you're going to be a historian or a priest. They don't think about the variety of careers that you might take from majoring in the humanities, or the evidence that employers want to hire liberal arts majors."
In fact, there's a plethora of evidence that suggests majoring in the humanities can lead to successful careers. Benjamin Schmidt covers some of these findings in a recent Atlantic article; humanities majors have slightly lower salaries and slightly higher rates of employment than people who major in STEM. But the "difference between humanities majors and science majors, in median income and unemployment, seems to be no more than the difference between residents of Virginia and North Carolina," Schmidt writes, and substantially less than the differences between men and women. And anecdotal accounts suggest that the tech industry is looking to hire more humanities majors to help with project management, human relations, fund-raising and other expanding needs.
This suggests opposition to humanities degrees is based more on prejudice than on actual job prospects. And it's also often linked to politics, according to Gabriele. The right-wing media has spent decades demonizing university professors and students; some conservatives seem to fear humanity professors in particular will indoctrinate students or intimidate budding conservatives.
Parental opposition to careers in the humanities is nothing new, of course. When Howard Dalton went to Ohio State at the end of the 1980s, his family wanted him to study pre-law. But he figured out pretty quickly he was not cut out for it. “I had no interest in it. It was like studying in Latin. It felt dead," he told me. He switched to a focus on English and writing. Sure enough, his relationship with his parents — already strained by the fact that he was gay — soured further and his family cut him off.
The difference between now and 25 years ago, though, was that previously, losing parental support for college wasn't necessarily insurmountable. "I started bartending at a gay bar," Dalton says, "and I took out loans to pay for college myself." He still managed to graduate with minimal debt, which made it possible to get loans to later pay for an MFA at Columbia even without his parents help. He's now married and is a corporate writer.
If Dalton had gone to college today, though, the loss of parental support would likely have been devastating. College tuition costs at private colleges have ballooned from around $15,000 a year in 1987, when Dalton started school, to more than $34,000 today. According to CNBC and the College Board, tuition increases at public schools have also skyrocketed, going from around $3,000 in 1987 to close to $10,000 a year now. It used to be possible to work a part-time job and put yourself through school. Now, for most people, it isn't.
Millennials are often criticized for being weak, overly sensitive and childish. In their new book, "The Coddling of the American Mind," Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff worry that parents are "doing far more these days to protect children," resulting in students who are scared and lack mental toughness. But there is little discussion of the way that massive college costs effectively keep students beholden to their parents throughout college and, with massive debt, potentially far beyond that.
"Students are infantilized by the university and by their parents," Gabriele says. "They're not treated like they're financially independent." A big part of being an adult is being financially responsible for yourself — which is impossible for young people struggling to find work while paying loans and healthcare costs. All of which means they have less financial independence and are more at the mercy of their parents when choosing majors.
Gabriele notes that schools could do a better job reaching out to parents and explaining why less-practical-seeming majors are important and helpful on the job market. But the fact remains that increasing college tuition means adults have more power over their children for longer. We chastise young people for not being more independent even as we make it harder and harder for them to make important choices about their own lives.
College is supposed to be a place that opens the world for students. But for young people today, high costs and parental leverage are closing down options before life even gets started.