UT Unspoken: Students weigh passions against professions

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Photo Credit: Rachel Tyler | Daily Texan Staff

The value of college has traditionally lain in its breadth — in its ability to expose students, regardless of their majors, to a wide range of disciplines and ideas. However, college is seemingly becoming an endeavor of narrower and narrower purpose, in which students feel pressured to study fields with high career prospects, rather than subjects they’re passionate about.

One business sophomore, who asked to remain anonymous, said he chose his current academic path because of the job security a business degree from UT provides. He said while he now feels more comfortable about post-graduation job prospects, his coursework leaves him feeling unfulfilled.

“I’m a big reader, so if I could, I would probably be studying literature or something in that vein,” he said. “But my parents expect me to make money, and knowing about Dickens won’t really do that for me.”

Many students think the best part of college is its facilitation of intellectual exploration, but the pressure to study within high-paying fields can hamper this process.

Jaclyn Kachelmeyer, a Plan II and geography senior, said she finds herself at the intersection of these dueling pressures. As she nears graduation, Kachelmeyer said she is unsure what career path to pursue.  

“I know the formula for financial comfort,” Kachelmeyer said. “You major in finance or something lucrative like that, and you’re set for life. But I can’t bring myself to study something I don’t love. It’s sad that we can basically be penalized for that.”

The merit of an undergraduate degree appears to be increasingly tied to its sheer economic value. According to a recent report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, over 80 percent of colleges don’t require students to take any history or foreign language courses. Even as university core curricula decline, the value of a college education in the job market continues to rise. Some Texas universities, including UT-Arlington, have begun offering $10,000 bachelor’s degrees that skimp on broad core requirements.  

The existence of these degrees raises the questions of whether college has become little more than a pre-professional requirement and whether this leaves students such as Kachelmeyer — who study what they love rather than what engenders job opportunities — at a disadvantage.  

For many, such as economics and computer science senior Corey Monreal-Jackson, it becomes necessary to set passions aside for something more practical. Despite Monreal-Jackson’s dream to one day write novels and compose music, he is currently pursuing a career in financial analysis. Monreal-Jackson said concerns about his economic well-being played a part in that decision.

“It’s disheartening in a sense, because it would be nice to pursue my passion and study what I care about,” Monreal-Jackson said. “But at the same time, I know that the odds of going to a conservatory and getting really good at an instrument isn’t all that high.”  

Monreal-Jackson’s experience is not unique. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, up to 80 percent of students change their major at least once during their college career. The decision to pursue one career over another is perhaps the most important one college students make, but it is not clear whether universities give students the necessary tools to make these decisions properly.

A landmark study by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa showed critical thinking skills among college students improve little between freshman year and graduation. Meanwhile, the importance of another metric — employability — has risen to ever-greater heights. Kachelmeyer said she questions this trend.  

“Why do we value what we value?” Kachelmeyer said. “Why is it that a poet is worth less than a banker?”