Monday, September 08, 2014


The Largest Major at Community Colleges

I’ll get to the responsible, adult part of the blog shortly.  But first a giddy update: The Dog is home!!!! (Insert mental pic of me doing the Snoopy dance.)  We had some wonderful volunteer helpers who helped us get the word out and used reported sightings to triangulate the best spot for a trap.  Now she’s home!  And she has a GPS collar in her future.

Okay, on to the responsible adult stuff…


Quick: what’s the single most popular major at community colleges in the United States?

Liberal arts.

That was true at my last college, but I initially attributed that to a fluke of demographics: Morris County, NJ, is a very affluent area, so I assumed that the transfer orientation was largely a focus on money.  But when I came to Holyoke -- the lowest-income city in Massachusetts -- the same was true here, too.  Now it comes out that the same is true nationally.  It’s not just local demographics.

I mention this because it’s almost entirely absent from national discussions of higher education.  In the popular press, “liberal arts” are assumed to be the exclusive province of the affluent, particularly at older small colleges that are full of people who use words like “problematize.”  (I attended one myself, so I know whereof I write.)  When higher ed policy types talk about liberal arts, they usually have in mind literature majors at places like Sarah Lawrence.  Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s only a part of the picture.

The traditional arts and sciences are much larger parts of the community college world than is generally acknowledged.  Some of that has to do with the overlap between “general education” requirements and the liberal arts, of course.  But some of it has to do with preparation for transfer, for which the liberal arts major is specifically built.  The student who wants to go on for a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts field is typically well-advised to take a liberal arts focus while at the community college.  Those courses transfer cleanly -- I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone shooting down Intro to Psych, for example -- and they’re much less expensive here.

For all of that, though, most of the political discussion around community colleges centers on workforce development, and most of the discussion around liberal arts ignores community colleges entirely.  

That’s a missed opportunity.  I’ve made the former point repeatedly, so here I’ll focus on the latter.  

If you take the original meaning of “liberal arts” as the “arts of liberty,” then community college students should be the first focus, rather than an afterthought.  In the aggregate, these are the students who have the most to gain from a serious education.  They’re the most trapped by economics, and frequently, the students with the least prior social capital.  If you believe, as I do, that the ability to think broadly about questions of ethics and economics and politics can come in handy from all different parts of society, then it would make sense to focus especially on teaching those intro courses well at the colleges that have the students who most need them.

So far, that mostly hasn’t happened.  Maybe it’s time to start.

OK, later for all the actual content-discussion 'n' serious stuff...

The Dog is back!!! Congratulations to you and the Wife and the Girl and the Boy (and the Dog, you silly silly puppy!)

Not everything sucks.
Great news about TD.

To be accurate, you should have said "Liberal Arts and Sciences" because that is the category they actually used. That helps make it a little clearer why a future engineer would get an Associate in Arts degree.

In addtion, a look at their full data table suggests that part of the 29% "Other" category probably includes transfer as well. Many history and engineering majors must be planning to transfer.

That terminology of "liberal arts and sciences" would resonate better with people who are familiar with universities that still have a college of arts and sciences that might as well be almost the entire university. However, even that confuses the distinction between a liberal arts major (meaning upper division classes in the liberal arts but not the sciences) and the old General Studies pseudo-major that many freshmen and sophomores were put in as a kind of administrative purgatory until they met the requirements to formally enter a specific major in a college within the university.
So glad your doggie is home, wagging her tail behind her. GPS collars can come off, but a subcutaneous chip is forever. Get her chipped as will.
Hooray for the return of the dog!

When I was in college, it was explained to me that a "liberal arts major" did actually include pure sciences, so a non-vocational biology, math, or psychology major was also getting a liberal arts education. I didn't think liberal arts and STEM were necessarily exclusive, depending on the field of study. Now, usually when I hear people talking about liberal arts now, it seems like they equate it with just humanities (occasionally throwing in a "useless" sounding social science like anthropology or sociology, but never the more respectable economics).

I don't think that people in colleges and universities are actually talking about the same thing as journalists and politicians and your mom, who doesn't understand why you didn't major in "STEM" for all the guaranteed jobs. This seems like a bigger PR problem to me. (I'm not sure CCPhysicist and I are talking about the same thing, either, and I am a grad student so I defer based on years in the field, but it does make me wonder whether and how much these definitions differ between schools.)
I'm so glad the dog is home!
I echo other commenters. I'm relieved the dog is home.
Congratulations on TD! I'd be beside myself if ours went on walkabout, so I'm so happy for you that you got her, safe and sound.
great news on the TD, who apparently really, really didn't want to be kenneled. what did she eat all that time?
Glad to hear the happy ending to the story.

Anonymous@4:28AM -

First, we are talking about the 2-year degree which is even more confusing to journalists and politicians than a 4-year liberal arts degree!

I think we are talking about the same thing, but the details of how any particular university is organized make it difficult to generalize. I am familiar with places where the liberal arts and the natural sciences are in separate colleges as well as ones where they are in the same college. I'm pretty sure I've heard of at least one place where math is not in with the natural sciences. Either way, medicine and engineering are usually in separate colleges, but it can get confusing if you ask there the T fields are found. Computer Science can be anywhere someone decided to start it (liberal arts college or engineering college). Ditto for various kinds of information technology.

(If you want to have a really long conversation, start an argument about what constitutes a PURE science or a PURE art!)
So happy to hear about TD!
I am so happy TD is back safe at home! I thought about it when I was with MD. (my dog) I will also be getting one of those GPS things. Congratulations!!!
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