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College Conundrum

Edmund Marsh

MY DAUGHTER IS MORE than halfway through her junior year of high school. College and career choices are hot topics in our household. My wife and I have a dilemma: Should we encourage our daughter to pursue a college degree that matches her passions—or nudge her toward one that has a better chance of paying the bills?

My daughter is no slouch in math and science, but her true love turns in another direction. She devours good books, and writes fantasy and poetry as a hobby. She’s a Latin scholar and thinks linguistics textbooks are a fun read. Words are her element. A life immersed in literature and language calls out to her.

Even so, my daughter is no fool. She understands the value of money, and plans to exit college on a path to a decent paycheck. She’s prepared to relegate her ardor for literature to hobby status. We wonder if she could have both, a job that’s satisfying to the soul as well as the bank account. Our thoughts turn toward an academic career as a possible option for her, but what are the prospects?

Maybe not so bright. Every business needs customers, and for schools that means students. Enrollment at colleges and universities is down, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. After losing students in 2020 and 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, schools hoped for a return to pre-pandemic enrollment levels in 2022. Instead, combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment for fall 2022 continued to run 5.8% below 2019’s level. This loss of students is in step with a trend that started in 2012, when the number of college students began to diminish.

To my mind, a dwindling student population equals a decreasing need for new instructors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of English language and literature teachers working at U.S. colleges and universities is projected to increase by 4,600 between 2021 and 2031. For a point of reference, I checked the BLS stats for my own profession of physical therapy. The forecasted number of new physical therapy jobs between 2021 and 2031 is 40,400, nearly nine times that of post-secondary English teacher positions.

What do those numbers mean when it comes to landing that first job after college? I know that a newly minted physical therapist has excellent prospects of finding a job that pays a decent wage. One of my roles at work is fostering relationships with students so we increase our chances of hiring them after graduation. A frequent conversation in hospitals and other businesses within the rehab industry concerns the abundance of available job openings and the dearth of therapists to fill them.

By contrast, talk inside the English department about the shape of the academic job market isn’t so rosy. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the outlook for employment as an English professor is dim and growing dimmer. Authored by an English professor at Yale University, the article highlights information from the Modern Language Association (MLA) about the shrinking job market for English teachers at colleges and universities, including data tracking teaching jobs advertised through the MLA. The number of positions listed fell 55% during the decade ending 2017-18, and continued to drop through 2020, according to the MLA. The organization calls the state of affairs “a crisis.”

Where does that leave our daughter’s career choice? At the root of our concern is our hope for our daughter’s future happiness. Yes, she could have fun now pursuing an English degree, but the odds are low that it would lead to employment within the field itself. Instead, she could fall short of her goal and wind up with a job that feels like a consolation prize. “Search engine optimization specialist” may be a great occupation. But it isn’t as likely to stir her blood as introducing the next generation to the heroic deeds of Beowulf or the rousing words of Henry V.

On the other hand, pushing passions aside and setting sights on one of the hot jobs of the future may lead to a case of buyer’s remorse down the road. To find examples, my wife and I need look no farther than the mirror. After starting our adult lives in jobs we didn’t greatly enjoy, we both returned to college in our 30s to train for a career that both sparked our interest and provided a decent income.

I know ours is not the first family to consider similar choices and, let’s face it, we’re also concerned about our own happiness. As the financiers of our dear daughter’s education, we’d like to avoid the regret of buying a degree that sits idle on the shelf.

Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?” Check out Ed’s earlier articles.

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