Regrets? Everyone has them

There’s not much analysis here, but lots of numbers about people who regret their choice of a college major. An awful lot of people are regretting getting a humanities degree.

It would have been nice if they dug a little deeper and asked why they regret it, instead of making a lot of speculation. I suspect many don’t regret the actual education — four years of investment in a subject generally implies a healthy interest and respect for the ideas — but it’s more that they don’t much care for the employment opportunities and the lack of respect modern American culture has for breadth of knowledge. College is where you get your ticket for a job, don’t you know, and there must be something wrong with you if you get a degree in a subject like history or literature because you love it. Nope, the focus is all on whether you can get paid lots of money in return for your degree.

Schmidt said it’s possible that the nation’s pro-STEM campaign led many humanities graduates to regret their choice of degree in retrospect, even if a different major may not actually have improved their employment opportunities at the height of a global downtown. They were struggling, and their degree was an obvious scapegoat.

In an analysis published in the Atlantic a few years back, Schmidt noted that while culture wars and student debt didn’t explain the humanities data well — even Christian colleges and colleges with generous financial aid have seen declines — it does line up with a wave of younger millennials who, scarred by the financial crisis, are increasingly fixated on majors with better job prospects.

That’s all true. Writing poetry pays diddly-squat. If your context is, “are you happy starving in a garret somewhere”, then yes, there is cause for regret. But the problem is not with the humanities, which have been a human constant for far longer than Nintendo has been hiring, but in a society that has lost the plot. We need the humanities, not necessarily because they help factories build widgets, but because they make us better people. Which doesn’t generate a number we can put on a spreadsheet.

Show me data like this, and I have other questions.

Have we become a healthier, stronger society since the numbers of humanities majors have been in decline? Correlation is not causation, of course, and I’m not blaming computer science degrees for Trump, but I don’t think it’s a good thing for us that fewer people are appreciating the joys of a deeper, wider education.


  1. kome says

    Even 20% for engineering is a pretty damn high number of people expressing regrets for their college degree. It sure says something unkind about our society that the low end still produces so much regret, as they’ve measured it.

  2. says

    I am a little surprised that voc-tech is so high. It’s usually a path to a decent living, although it can be a dead-ender. Maybe it’s oversold(?) In any case, having degrees in both engineering and comp sci, I’d wager that the dissatisfaction there comes from the “work you to death because you’re a salaried employee” ethos that is common in industry. At one time, it was pretty much expected that engineers would put in 60 hour weeks, minimum, including coming in on Saturdays for at least a few hours. I don’t know what it’s like these days. In the early days of my career, I decided to live with the lower pay and went into academia. Fortunately, the college I worked at had a very solid and active faculty/staff union which prevented most abuses.

  3. skeptuckian says

    Quote from DUNE (Herbert – 1965): “Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”
    Poetry used to be the way to enflame emotions and get people to act this or that way. It is much quicker to stick people in front of screens and create the Skinnerian environment to control their actions. Who wants to spend hours/days/weeks writing a poem and then hoping your audience figures it out when Facebook’s algorithms can put tasty, easy to digest, visual junk food in front of the masses. It is another pollution crisis and this one has known effects on the brain!

  4. silvrhalide says

    Not enough data. Take the engineering degree regret (the lowest of the lot). Does “degree regret” mean that the dissatisfied engineering major regrets 1) getting a college degree at all, 2) getting an engineering degree or 3) getting the type of engineering degree that s/he got? (Wish I’d gotten an electrical engineering degree instead of aerospace! The aviation industry is in the toilet and sucks for employment opportunities!)

    ” We need the humanities…”
    Sure, but we also need humanities graduates who actually know something about the subject that they allegedly studied for four years. There are a shocking number of humanities majors who leave college with a BA and are just as dumb on exiting academia as they were upon entering it. They can’t read, they can’t write and they certainly can’t think.
    I started my media career as a proofreader/copy editor. After enough snippy comments (There is a difference between plural and possessive–learn it! Pick a verb tense and stick with it! Subject-verb agreement is A Thing!) about the poor quality of reporters that the newspaper conglomerate hired (and the crappy product they consistently produced), I was included on the hiring committee. I literally could not find a single applicant who could write anything that did not have to be heavily edited first. And forget news articles with any actual news, these idiots are all “writing stylists”. As in, their major focus is on writing style, not accuracy, literacy or, God forbid, any actual news reporting. But they all had BAs in English, journalism, etc. Four years of literary criticism did not teach them any actual useful skills but it did net them a BA. (When I say “useful skills”, understand that I mean “writing skills sufficient that someone would actually pay to read something that you wrote”.) Four years of actual writing practice, be it creative writing, script writing or actual journalism might have given these kids actual marketable skills but most humanities majors are remarkably light on any classes that required any actual writing. And it shows.

  5. Miserable Git Says says

    I think this reflects two issues. First, the overriding pressure youngsters have to get a degree, being told without a degree they will not be able to get a good job. The solution here is that companies should be encourage/forced to have a certain number of apprentices on their books. Europe especially Germany and Switzerland does great job with their apprentice programs. And from their apprentice programs you can in turn earn a degree and even go on to get a phd. I’ve met many Herr and Frau Doctor who started off on a apprenticeship.
    Second, for most students its either STEM or humanities. I did and engineering degree and have done relatively well from it, but I would have gained massively from more humanities in the course content.

  6. silvrhalide says

    @3 A lot of vocational/tech schools promise the sun, the moon & the stars but when you look at their graduate data, you find out that most of their enrolled students fail to complete their studies. A lot of people don’t want to go to a community college or vocational school for 2-4 years, which is the surer path to a career but takes longer. There are no shortage of for-profit schools who promise applicants that they can get certified and start a career in half the time but the majority of their students drop out and then have no certification but do have educational debt. Also, you can get federal loans for college but not for vocational training/certification, which is a big part of the problem.

  7. says

    There are also a shocking number of STEM graduates who are dumb. Especially since many of the worst people go into computer science for the money, rather than an interest in logic and math.

  8. asclepias says

    I wouldn’t say I regret any of my master’s degree in biology. I do wish I’d been less afraid of math and taken more of it, but I also wish that employers (especially the federal government) would realize that some types of math are far more relevant to the discipline than others. Also, I hate, hate, hate in-person interviews! I think it says a lot that the first 5 jobs I actually got were the result of phone interviews. I have a visible disability, and every time I go into a job interview I get nervous because it’s something I can’t hide. I always end up wondering if the reason I didn’t get the job was because I really wasn’t qualified or because I don’t look right. There is a high rate of unemployment in the disabled community. Sometimes I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that I went to school out-of-state. The state agencies here tend to be biased in favor of people who attended college locally.

    There is a tendency for people to want to help when they find out you are unemployed. After all, if you can’t get a job, you must be doing something wrong. Did you go to college? Yes. Have you contacted the department of workforce services? Yes. Have you worked with a jobs developer? Yes. Have you gone back to school to get reeducated? Yes. Have you looked for jobs outside your field? Yes.

    And don’t even get me started on the myth that the federal government can’t discriminate. Those agencies are made up of humans, and they absolutely do discriminate. I mentioned my jobs problems in passing to a physical therapist once, who said, “Why don’t you try the Forest Service. They can’t discriminate.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Let me tell you a story.” When I first met the deputy supervisor at the local Fish and Wildlife Service, his body language screamed, “You make me uncomfortable.” It was all there, the limp handshake, the refusal to make eye contact. I knew right then that we wouldn’t work well together. We had an uneasy truce for a couple of years, and then the field supervisor retired, the deputy field supervisor got his job, and the shit really hit the fan. Since he got that job, the place has been hemorrhaging people. Glad to know it’s not just me he rubbed the wrong way.

  9. consciousness razor says

    silvrhalide, #5:

    Not enough data. Take the engineering degree regret (the lowest of the lot). Does “degree regret” mean that the dissatisfied engineering major regrets 1) getting a college degree at all, 2) getting an engineering degree or 3) getting the type of engineering degree that s/he got?

    Not enough data for what? Any of those would count as regret. Anyway, it does say “those wish they’d chosen a different field of study.”

    What was it that you were saying about people who “can’t read, they can’t write and they certainly can’t think”? Is this supposed to be more forgivable or something, since you got a different type of degree?

    ” We need the humanities…”
    Sure, but we also need humanities graduates who actually know something about the subject that they allegedly studied for four years.

    Sure, but where did you put your poorly-formatted rant about all the clueless assholes who got a bachelors in business, computer science or engineering? I want to hear about them too, especially since there are so many more of them.

    Four years of actual writing practice, be it creative writing, script writing or actual journalism might have given these kids actual marketable skills but most humanities majors are remarkably light on any classes that required any actual writing. And it shows.

    But the conclusion you somehow drew from your personal experiences was that “a shocking number” of such people don’t actually know anything about the subject they allegedly studied for four years.

    That’s different from claiming that they didn’t learn enough (to your satisfaction) about the specific “marketable skill” of … not requiring an editor (apparently), as if it made any sense to say that needing an editor meant a person knew nothing about English writing, linguistics, literature, history, or anything else in that very broad subject area that you study when you get a BA in English.

  10. consciousness razor says


    Anyway, it does say “those who wish they’d chosen a different field of study.”

    Whoops. It doesn’t seem fair to blame me, though, since I studied music rather than English.

    Of course, I never need to edit any music that I’ve written. It’s always totally flawless. You could ask anyone, as long as they’re appropriately impartial and haven’t seen any of my work.

  11. consciousness razor says

    It’s just unfortunate that nobody in the market ever asks about it, even though it’s such a useful, marketable skill.

  12. consciousness razor says

    But those who got a computer science degree? I’m sure most of them put that on the resume somewhere or at least bring it up during the job interview: “I never have any bugs. All of the bug-testing happens in my mind, so you can fire that whole team and all of their tools which are devoted to it.” Those people get hired for sure, and they’re probably the ones who make the big bucks, since they’re the ones who “actually know something” about computer science.

  13. ANB says

    I’m happy with my humanities undergraduate degree. Got lots of schooling past that and that, as we all know here, is where the specialization comes in.

  14. Oggie: Mathom says

    My degree is in the humanities. Liberal arts. Specifically, modern military history. And no, I do not regret the degree, or any of the courses that took me there.

    I started out as a math major. I have always been good at math, especially when they started adding letters. My problem, though, as I got to higher maths, all the way through calculus in high school, was that, although I could solve the equations and functions, I could not ‘see’ what the equation or function was telling me. I could not look at an equation, work it through, and ‘see’ the plot on the graph the way that a couple of others in my class could. Plus, once I had figured out how to solve an equation, no matter what bells and whistles were added, I found it extremely boring.

    So I switched to something I like and became a public historian.

  15. says

    @7, yes, there certainly are a number of sleazy voc-tech “schools” out there. When I think of vocational-technical training, I tend to think of either high school based systems like BOCES or programs at community colleges (usually associate degree but also one year certificates). Honestly, I would never recommend a private for-profit voc-tech school to anyone. My experience has been that they tend to not be very good. Well, not very good at teaching the material. They might be very good at siphoning cash from their students.

    After some 40 years teaching electrical engineering (and related coursework), I am more convinced than ever of the value of teaching the humanities. I’ve dealt with managers from local businesses who believe that it’s just a waste of time, but on the other hand, I’ve also worked with managers who understand the value of it all. Specifically, they mention communication skills (oral and written). Granted, that’s the practical end, but it’s still part of the field.

    I recall reading a report in one of the engineering journals maybe 20 or 30 years ago, where they asked engineers in various age groups what courses they wish they had more of in college. The results are not surprising when you consider a typical engineering career arc: Younger engineers mentioned specific coursework in their major, such as emerging technologies, or theoretical elements in allied areas. Middle-aged engineers wished they had taken more coursework in management, social science, and the like. The older engineers at the end of their careers wish they had taken more in the way of philosophy and general humanities.

    A potential problem that I see with some STEM programs is that they can divorce all of the humanities from the curriculum. Not good. I would get the usual gripes from my students regarding English/humanities course requirements and I would always tell them that they were important to their overall education, and that education and training are two different things. Training is useful to get a job. Education can make you a better person and a better member of society. I find some STEM programs are leaning too far into training at the expense of overall education. (But it goes both ways- just as an engineering or science grad should be exposed to the humanities in a meaningful way, so to should humanities majors be exposed to science.)

  16. tacitus says

    I have a computer science degree (from the UK) and have had occasional regrets over my choice, but not because I did it for the money. In the early 80s, it was easy enough to find a job as a programmer if you had the aptitude for it — one early colleague of mine had a Latin degree — so, looking back, I sometimes think it would have been better to have done a degree in a different subject I enjoyed, like geography or geology, especially one that wasn’t so completely male dominated (four women, three of them from China, out of 100 students).

    I would very likely have ended up with a career in computers anyway, but I suspect I would have enjoyed my university experience more.

  17. S maltophilia says

    Another liberal arts/humanities here with no regrets. I’ve worked in several occupations tangentially related to my degree, and as each became obsolete, learned a new profession. No worries about learning a new job. And no getting stuck for life in something I hated.

  18. says

    They support each other. There will be ebbs and flows; there will be readjustments. A computer science or bioengineering degree doesn’t help if there’s no communication, no understanding of what the audience needs or wants in communication, no context for communication. A comparative literature or philosophy degree can teach those skills, but faaaaaaabulous rhetoric in the service of seventeenth-century biological concepts as the ne plus ultra of environmental policy is probably not the best idea. And we could always drag in the social sciences (which are neither sciences nor — especially if you’ve ever hung around a bunch of political scientists arguing about voting — particularly social). Or not.

    I have both STEM and humanities undergraduate degrees… and never used either one formally and directly; just the skills and knowledge from both (including graduate work elsewhere).

  19. lanir says

    I tried college several times but didn’t get a degree. It didn’t really work out for me. By that point, school and home life had messed with my curiosity and desire to learn pretty significantly. They were still core traits for me but a lot of damage was done.

    I came out with good reading comprehension though. Which I think was largely to due to being a voracious reader. And that let me teach myself enough compsci to get a good job, eventually. I found I was teaching other people what I’d learned pretty frequently, more often than the reverse happened.

    One of the things I learned about people who work in my field is that they can be kind of… dumb about some things. It surprised me since the field actually uses critical thinking and logic fairly often. Without a solid grasp of these tools you’re stuck being an expert on a piece of software rather than being good at troubleshooting software in general – means you have to start from scratch with each new piece of software. It’s the difference between knowing how to read a map and knowing where you’re going in one small area because you’ve already been down that specific path dozens of times.

    Part of what surprised me the most was how readily they believed some really badly crafted narratives. For example, in my experience a lot of people in that field believe that poor people choose to be poor and just don’t work hard enough. Even though they can see those people all around them working harder than they do. When that’s pointed out they retreat to all the usual places. Which eventually all come down to how poor parents were supposed to pay their children’s way through college the same way my colleague’s parents paid their way. They never quite manage to see that they’re saying those families should have had money to make money and then gambled everything they had on a post-graduation jobs market. And sure, everyone does that gamble to some extent but most of us have no possibility of sinking our entire family if it doesn’t work out.

  20. seachange says

    I have a BS Geology. I went to a liberal arts college to get it so I was required to take quite a bit of humanities as general education requirements.

    There appears to be a misaprehension by PZ or misprision by me on PZ’s purpose about the emphasis on STEM? The reason why there is an emphasis on STEM is not the modernist and malicious-seeming reason he has given. I say malicious because the failures at science in my liberal arts university who I knew who then changed majors into english, business, and psychology would attack me socially with social engineering attempting to better their relative social and economic status using the exact same arguments PZ is using here. The folks who I met in GE classes that were high GPA high SAT requirements who were not even close to science majors to start with, they would do the same thing.

    The attacks on nerds and geeks is lifelong, and petty. I have no sympathy for any regrets my attackers may have, either real or imagined-by-fake-news. Now it turns out that all that rhetoric lessons I learned and got poor grades in, the grades didn’t matter because I kept at it for decades after. I’m good at it now. But most people engineering OR humanities don’t do that. At all.

    I can say a b c d e f and then gesture to average someone and they say g. I can get folks to at least acknowledge who that dead white guy Shakespeare is. I can recite a few times tables and gesture and someone and get a blank. They have no idea who Pythagoras is or his theorem. Lacking the basics in innumeracy is the bigger problem!

    The reason is that the United States actually needs more folks in STEM than our universities are producing and is importing people from around the world to do those jobs for us in our own country. We’re not just doing it for capitalism but because running a modern country under any system requires this. Yes, you can frame it in capitalist terms, but a bridge doesn’t care how you odistically feel about it and converting this country away from carbon does not require you to know that 2+2=5 ‘for certain societally determined large values of 2 because how many grains of sand make a heap’. Hilbert took a thousand pages.

    Now the reason why this could be a misprision on my part is this: universities are being choked to death. Part of the choking to death is self-inflicted as they waste more and more of their money on administration and not on actual pedagogy. Part of the choking to death is that even though us boomers were indeed heavily humanties-ized we’ve been cutting off funding and support for education in our greedy self-interest, entirely ignoring those who would oppress us cutting off education because they saw all of our protests eeeeek.

    It’s about the money and power of pedagogy. Just like class warfare is pitting different parts of the proletariat against each other so they can buy their tenth De Vos yacht, it could be that PZ has decided that there must be a conflict between STEM and humanities? Because he, his students, and all of us, we’re all being fucking squeezed. Know who your true enemies are.

  21. onefatbroad says

    My regret is that I was so focused on getting the degree (electrical engineering) before my grant money ran out that I couldn’t explore other interests. I took a class in Physical Geography that changed my life, but have only vague memories of my electrical machinery and digital communications classes. But I did the best I could under the circumstances. Minimal regrets

  22. Howard Brazee says

    I don’t think we need more humanities degrees so much as more humanities in all degrees.
    Oh, and more science in all degrees.

  23. Oggie: Mathom says

    I fully agree that STEM degrees are important. And I agree that STEM students should have more humanities classes. But I disagree with those who seem (note the modifier, there) to be heading towards a ‘we don’t need no stinkin’ humanities.’ Not as much on this thread as in places discussing student loan forgiveness.

    I (as stated above) majored in modern military history. I spent my career (post Army) as a National Park Ranger engaged in public history. And I think that I made more of a difference in the NPS than I would have if I had continued my original plans to be a computer engineer. I created publications that, with modifications, will be used for years. I helped to plan a new national park service site. I created educational programs that are still in use. I created products — maps, images, logos — of and for the park that are still in use and, with modifications, will probably be in use decades from now. I came up with an idea that was implemented by our park and is expanding through the NPS (Make sure every position in the park has a full, and accurate, job description coupled with an entire hiring package, so that when a position comes open (through transfer or retirement), the park already has the package ready to go to region. It saves about three months in filling a position.). Now, I admit freely that much of the work that I did was on computer, but I was utilizing products others created — Paint Shop Pro (I still use that one at home), Adobe Suite, etc.
    I know my limitations. I am really good a researching (as long as it is not online). I am a pretty good writer. I have pretty good design skills. I am good at helping a group of people figure out what it is they want. But I also know that, though I was good in higher maths, I lacked that certain ‘something’ that could have made a difference. Had I gone into computer engineering, I doubt that I could have kept up enough to be more than a supporter of those with the ideas. I doubt that I would have created anything that might still be in use a decade or two from now.

    I have a great deal of respect for those in STEM careers. Those careers are not for everyone. I am happy with my choice. And pretty damn content.

    (I do have to admit that there are times when I wish I had gone into geology/paleontology, but, just like engineering, I doubt I would have been good enough to stay in the field, much less make a difference.)

  24. says

    I’m not happy with this focus on who is happy with their degree as a function of their employability. I mean, who even has any sort of four year degree that is at all related to what they do – even a four-year engineering degree isn’t gonna get you a job.

    “I could fill volumes with descriptions of temples and palaces, paintings, sculptures, tapestry, porcelain, etc., etc., etc.—if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences: the art of legislation and administration and negotiation, ought to take place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other arts. I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” ~ John Adams,

  25. says

    Personally I studied physics and math. These were subjects I was comfortable studying. I also played violin.

    But once I was out of college I worked as a computer programmer. No physics. No math. And no violin. That last part is a life-long regret. I’ve picked it up again ten years ago, but I wish I hadn’t left if fallow for decades.