Addressing departmental stigma among college students

Not all majors are created equal. And just as there exists stigma attached to those who decide not to earn college degrees, there are also degrees of stigma attached to different educational tracks among college bodies.

In many ways, college communities contain within them their own socioeconomic class system based loosely on post-graduate prospects— students in departments who are destined to earn higher incomes develop a superiority complex over students who are destined for lower incomes or even unemployment.

The key word of this organizational issue is “pragmatism,” what degree will help students make a concrete contribution to the wants and needs of the community and be compensated accordingly.

Now more than ever, students are claiming that their sole purpose in going to college is for job training, despite the growing popularity in theoretical fields. In “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student,” Arthur Levine notes a growing disconnect between what students pursue academically and what they hope to earn from those degrees (Levine 2012).

“They’re willing to have a major they’re not really interested in if they think there will be job growth in that field,” Levine said when asked what the primary difference is between this generation of college students and previous generations (Lewin 2012). “They’re much less likely than their predecessors to say they’re in college to develop their personal values, or learn to get along with different people… Also, this generation is very optimistic about their personal futures but almost equally pessimistic about the future of the country. And they have a great fear of failure.”

The 2012 Georgetown University study, “Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal” shows that unemployment rates are generally higher in non-technical majors, such as the arts (11.1 percent), humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent) and social science (8.9 percent). STEM fields of education, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, are more commonly associated with high employment and workforce development (Carnevale 2012).

So with these studies along with information taken from the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s understandable how the potential for higher occupational status in college would reflect the class difference present in “the real world” among individual among varying socioeconomic status.

Ultimately, this issue may be rooted in varying definitions of the purpose of higher education, which ranges from institution to institution and from generation to generation. To many, the only purpose of earning a college degree is to learn a skill that will lead to a high-income career, which helps college students justify spending tens of thousands on tuition. To others, self-betterment and development of communication and critical thinking skills play a larger role.

In his 1993 study “What Matters in College?” Alexander Astin asserts, research universities continue shortchanging undergraduate education as long as they value the acquisition of resources and the enhancement of reputation more than the educational and personal development of the undergraduate. Perhaps this ideology is still relevant today, 20 years after this paper’s publication.

Defining the purpose of a college education may begin long before emerging adulthood. Parents contribute to how students view education by instilling life values (such as dependence or self-reliance). These values extend to the function of money in life and, in turn, a college degree.

“Values are fundamental to just about everything we do in undergraduate education: whom we admit and on what basis; what we teach students and how we teach it; what roles and requirements will govern our students’ conduct; how to test and certify students; whom to hire and the criteria for hiring; tenuring and promoting faculty; the manner in which we treat each other as professional colleagues; the topics we choose for our research and scholarship; and how we faculty use our discretionary time,” Astin writes (Astin 1993).

Institutions frequently espouse high-sounding values in their mission statements, college catalogues, and public pronouncements by institutional leaders (Astin 1993). However, the problem is that these explicitly stated values—which always include a strong commitment to undergraduate education— are not frequently encompassed by the students within those institutions. And a kind of elitism from students in engineering or other STEM fields begins to form.

Perhaps more so in North Carolina than in other states, legislators and government officials contribute these stigmas. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory declared earlier this year that the “educational elite” have taken over colleges, and lashed out over what he says are worthless courses that offer “no chances of getting people jobs.”

“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it,” McCrory said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” Despite having degrees in education and political science, McCrory gave firm stance on the role of higher education being solely for employment.

The solution to the issue within this organizational class system is simple: students, parents, faculty, legislators, instructors and other educational leaders from every department should work toward adopting a more accepting view of what education means for various students. One’s contribution to society isn’t only based on money earned; the purpose of a college is in the eye of the one earning it.

Author’s note: this post was originally an essay that I completed for an undergraduate-level sociology course.  



Astin, Alexander W. 1993. “What matters in college?” EBSCO Publishing 79(4):4-12.

Carnevale, Anthony, Ban Cheah and Jeff Strohl. 2012. “Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings – Not All College Degrees Are Equal.” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Kingkade, Tyler. 2013. “Pat McCrory Lashes Out Against ‘Educational Elite’ And Liberal Arts College Courses.” Huffington Post. February 2 2013.

Levine, Arthur and Diane Dean. 2012. “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student.” New York, NY: Jossey-Bass.

Lewin, Tamar. 2012. “Digital Natives and Their Customs.” New York Times, November 2, 2012.