The Myth of a Country Ever More Awash in Holders of “Useless” Degrees

The accusation that the fault for many a national problem lies in the country’s young people eschewing STEM in favor of “soft” and “useless” degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences whose award is something akin to a scam given that upon graduation the fate of those debt-loaded students will be working behind the counter at Starbucks.

As is generally the case with such situations the advancement of the claim, and the debate it provokes (if one dignifies it with that term), is mostly evidence-free — a matter of spewing one’s culture war-soiled prejudices.

The fact by itself ought to make the claim suspect. Admittedly education is an area where the collection of statistical data leaves much to be desired. However, the data that is available suffices to make it quite clear that the image of young people all getting “useless” degrees is profoundly false.

Consider, for instance, the much-maligned degree in English. In 2018–2020 the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded in that field ran below 2 percent of the total (far, far less than you would guess from the noise) — with this, of course, including all those taking English as part of pre-law study, aspirants to work in advertising, persons planning to teach the English language courses that everyone following any course of study must take in school, etc.. The result is that for every B.A. awarded in English American colleges awarded three degrees in engineering, and another three in computer and information science, and at least that many in the biological and biomedical sciences.

Moreover, the trend has been toward less humanities education, and more STEM education, with English and engineering useful reference points. In the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, it may have been common for bachelor’s degrees in English to comprise 4–5 percent of the total. By 2010–2011 they were down to 3 percent, on the way to the current level (a drop of a third in a space of a few years). By contrast, if the output of engineering graduates has been more volatile it seems worth remembering that where in the early twenty-first century they seem to have run 4–5 percent of the total, in 2017–2020 they consistently accounted for over 6 percent of B.A.s (a jump of a third in a similarly short span of a time). More broadly, over that decade the Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences category as I have been able to determine it went from accounting for 39 percent of bachelor’s degrees at the start of the 2010–2020 period to 33 percent at its end, while STEM categories, broadly defined, surged from 29 to over 39 percent — the ratio gone from 1.3 Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences bachelor’s degrees for every one STEM baccalaureate to nearly the reverse (in, again, the space of a decade).* Defining STEM more narrowly so as to focus on the physical science, computer science, engineering and engineering technology graduates, mathematicians and the like (leaving out such undeniable science workers as those in agriculture and natural resources, the biological and biomedical sciences, the health professionals, etc., in favor of the physical science/production-orientation those who speak of the term usually have in mind) I still get a jump from 12 to 16 percent — and so a robust (if somewhat more modest) measure of absolute and relative growth that has these categories going from producing three graduates for every ten in the Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences category to five in the relevant span of time.**

Indeed, to the extent that the image of the overproduction of “useless” arts, humanities and social science majors has any basis it seems to lie in outdated images of what is actually happening at the schools — for the shift has been extraordinary. This is all the more the case as this proportional shift has occurred not in a context where the number of B.A.s awarded fell but actually rose by a near fifth (from 1.72 to 2.04 million), so that one cannot rationalize it as a matter of people simply dropping out of the “useless” humanities, etc. programs. (The number of engineering majors surged from 76,000 in 2010–2011 to 128,000 in 2019–2020, a 68 percent jump bespeaking a sustained 6 percent a year growth rate; the number of graduates of STEM programs as counted here more broadly from 496,000 to 801,000, an only slightly less impressive rate of growth.) Moreover, for all the complaints about the number of foreign students in such programs. (Even discounting the “temporary visa” category one has a fifty percent jump, evidentiating the position that U.S. citizens really are getting so many more degrees.)

It has also happened in a context where there has been little serious effort to make STEM majors more attractive (e.g. better pay and conditions for workers, or an easing of the cost of education for those who go this track); and where there does not seem to have been much done to better equip students to follow those majors at the K-12 level.

One would think that this big jump in the number of STEM majors would be a national story which would give some solace to the “WE NEED MORE STEM!” crowd. However, because it would offer some solace to them (and for many, many other reasons) it conflicts with the narratives so many want to push — of the humanities as a threat to the country because of intellectuals’ perversity; of young people having only themselves to blame for their own problems when they leave college and can’t find work commensurate with their level of schooling, and the country’s industrial decline being attributable to their fecklessness rather than anyone else’s — and so is totally ignored by those whose job it is to “inform” the public..

* In calculating the figure for Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences I counted in, besides the “Visual and Performing Arts,” English and foreign languages, literature and linguistics, “Social Science and History,” “Liberal Arts and Sciences, General studies, and Humanities,” “Philosophy and Religious Studies,” “Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender, and Group Studies,” also “Psychology,” “Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences,” “Theology and Religious Vocation Programs,” “Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs,” and “Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies.” In calculating the figure for STEM I counted in, besides “Engineering,” “Engineering Technologies,” “Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services,” “Communications Technology,” “Architecture and Related Services,” “Biological and Biomedical Sciences,” “Physical Sciences and Science Technologies” and “Mathematics and Statistics,” also “Precision Production,” “Agriculture and Natural Resources,” “Transportation and Materials Moving,” “Health Professions and Related Programs,” and “Parks, Recreation, Fitness, Leisure and Kinesiology.”
** Specifically I retained the “Engineering,” “Engineering Technologies,” “Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services,” “Communications Technology,” “Architecture and Related Services,” “Physical Sciences and Science Technologies,” “Mathematics and Statistics,” “Precision Production,” and “Transportation and Materials Moving” categories.

Originally published at



Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.