But Amherst's Marx fears that viewing education this way actually might make the economy worse. "I worry, particularly at a moment of greater economic uncertainty, that if we retreat to a more short-term, shortsighted, preprofessional set of undergraduate training, that will lead to the further decay of our global position because we won't be preparing the next generation with the kind of thinking and innovative skills that are actually the drivers of broader economic success," he says.
Meanwhile, employers are sending mixed signals on the issue. Of some 275 employers surveyed last year, one third said new graduates lacked communication and writing skills necessary for the workplace, according to the 2008 Job Outlook Survey. In the survey, communication skills ranked highest of qualities most desired by employers, whereas technical skills barely made the top 10 list. Yet a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that, over time, specialization may be the economically safer route. Researchers tracked the experiences of 9,000 bachelor's degree recipients from 1993 and found that graduates with career-oriented majors become established in the workforce earlier than their academic-majoring peers and held proportionally more full-time jobs 10 years after graduation, the report says. Though more academics continued their education in graduate programs, there were no significant salary differences between the two groups, and fewer graduates with career-focused majors struggled with unemployment, the study shows.
Still, some worry that students are choosing these specialized majors while in high school and may get stuck in a profession they don't like or spend more money going back to school or transferring majors if they change their minds. Hansen says students who might be on the fence about their desired careers shouldn't rush into narrow majors too quickly for this reason. "I fear that we're making these kids make career decisions at 15 or 16," he says. "That's the thing about college—it's supposed to be a time where you do discover yourself both personally and professionally."
Hughes has no intention of leaving turf. This summer he interned at Baltusrol Country Club in Springfield, N.J.—one of the country's most prestigious courses, says Turgeon. After he graduates this December, Hughes hopes to return to the club, where nearly all the maintenance staff is Penn State turfgrass alumni. "It was always turf I was interested in," he says, adding that the thought of studying broader subjects like agronomy or horticulture never crossed his mind. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to me."