Debating the Ideal College Degree for the AI Era

Josephine Perl has firsthand knowledge that the majority of college students pursuing humanities degrees often face a similar question: How will you secure a livelihood?

It’s a concern that specifically troubles students like the 20-year-old philosophy major at Boston University, particularly since the advent of ChatGPT. The artificial intelligence-powered chatbot is predicted to diminish the value of the nuanced language skills possessed by workers with humanities degrees, qualifications that have been diminishing over the past ten years.

As AI begins to reshape the job market, the potential impact on certain professions is becoming increasingly evident. While research on this topic is still in its infancy, there are signs that the career prospects for workers in communications and computer coding could be more at risk compared to other fields.

Speculations about which fields will be most affected by bots are currently inconclusive.

“I anticipate we will experience a significant transformation,” remarked Manav Raj, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has conducted research on the impact of ChatGPT on the workforce. “It is challenging for me to precisely pinpoint the skills that will retain value.”

The uncertainty looms large over college students while debunking common assumptions regarding the value of certain degrees. Concurrently, the federal government is preparing to impose new regulations on colleges to ensure students receive adequate value for their education.

The conversation will undoubtedly persist as students head back to campuses this autumn. Despite the AI “hype,” Perl, the philosophy major in Boston, remains undeterred. Writing novels since the age of 11, she has aspirations to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. Driven by her dream of becoming a novelist, she aims to write young adult fiction akin to what she enjoyed as a child – a talent she believes AI cannot replicate.

Other philosophy students she knows are considering attending law school. She contemplates this option at times, particularly as a student reliant on scholarships to cover tuition.

“Some individuals prioritize financial stability,” she noted.

Is a computer science degree still a secure investment?

The ongoing debate on which college degrees lead to high-paying jobs has endured for decades, especially as higher education enrollment increased in the latter half of the previous century.

In recent years, the soaring cost of college education and the student loan debt crisis have compelled students and families to carefully evaluate programs with the best outcomes. This fall, the number of undergraduates studying computer and information sciences surpassed the number of humanities majors after years of technical fields lagging behind.

Software developers with computer science degrees often earn six-figure median annual incomes. Furthermore, recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates an increase in student retention in computer science programs in the fall of 2022 coinciding with the introduction of ChatGPT.

Despite the chatter on social media over the past year, theorizing on whether AI advancements could render programming degrees obsolete, Todd Thibodeaux, president of the tech trade group CompTIA, remains pragmatic. He believes that radical industry shifts won’t occur as swiftly as some fear, but the rapid evolution of marketable skills will necessitate students to be discerning about their choice of colleges.

“Avoid schools using outdated textbooks,” he recommended.

Arpita Pandey, a 19-year-old computer science major at the University of California, San Diego, remains unfazed by the hand-wringing. Opting for this career path for job stability and with a family background in software development, she plans to pursue a master’s degree to enhance her competitiveness in the job market.

“Basic coding skills are no longer sufficient,” she observed. “We need to acquire new skills where AI cannot surpass us.”

A revival for the liberal arts?

Even billionaire Mark Cuban, who amassed his wealth by selling technology companies in the internet’s early days, has contributed to the discussion. Cuban has long advocated that in the forthcoming era of AI, employers will increasingly value graduates with humanities backgrounds. He recently reiterated this prediction.

“I mentioned this years ago, and I’ll reiterate, in an AI-driven world, training in liberal arts can be immensely valuable,” he stated on X.

Humanities programs – encompassing subjects like English and philosophy – have faced challenges for years. Since 2012, the number of students majoring in humanities has steadily declined from around 240,000 to less than 180,000 a decade later, according to federal data.

“There are certainly valid concerns,” acknowledged Robert Townsend, the co-director of a project at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences monitoring the decrease in humanities majors.

Data suggests that graduates with humanities degrees from four-year colleges earn more on average than those with only a high school diploma. Despite the often obscure costs, undergraduate degrees generally lead to higher earnings over a lifetime. (Determining whether other types of degrees justify the expense is a more complex issue.)

However, the return on investment is a multifaceted concept. Ultimately, whether students and their families view their college expenses as worthwhile depends on various factors, such as the institution attended and the amount of financial aid received.

Dennis Ahlburg, an economist and former college president from Texas who authored a book on the humanities crisis, tends to align with the billionaire entrepreneur. Above all, Ahlburg emphasized that businesses value individuals with strong critical thinking skills.

Predicting which degrees will yield fruitful outcomes is challenging for families, especially given the wide range of tuition costs. He advised his 18-year-old son, soon embarking on college, to pursue a subject he is passionate about.

“Life is too long to do something you despise,” he remarked.

Biden’s plans for enhanced college oversight

Amid the ongoing AI deliberations, the Biden administration is gearing up to introduce regulations aimed at holding colleges accountable for offering degrees that equip students for success. These policies, enforcing greater transparency by schools on the value of programs to students, are commonly known as “gainful employment” and “financial value transparency” regulations.

Despite a recent Supreme Court decision weakening federal agencies, potentially making these rules more susceptible to legal challenges, the policies are scheduled to come into effect in October.

Read more:Supreme Court curbs power of federal regulators, overturning 40-year precedent

By then, Katie Priest, a philosophy and communications major at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, will be entering her senior year. Much has evolved for Priest since ChatGPT’s launch in November 2022. The app’s arrival initially instilled fear in her about the suitability of her chosen career path.

“It felt like doomsday,” she recalled. However, delving into AI research with one of her professors alleviated her concerns, convincing her that AI cannot entirely supplant her or others aspiring to teach philosophy at the collegiate level.

Nevertheless, she hasn’t evaded the reverberations of the technology. Her mother supplements her income with a crafting blog, and following Google’s introduction of new AI features in May, web traffic to the site plummeted, along with her mother’s earnings.


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