Daniel Hughes first took a summer maintenance position at his hometown golf course in Allentown, Pa., solely for the free golf. But waking up before dawn to mow greens and rake sand traps soon became something more than just another summer job—it became his college major. In fall of 2005, just before his sophomore year at Pennsylvania State University, he switched his major from education to turfgrass science, a four-year bachelor's degree offered through the school's College of Agricultural Science. In that program, Hughes and some 200 other undergrads at Penn State study plant diseases and pest and weed control, along with other courses tailored specifically to managing turf, which is mostly used in golf courses and other sport stadiums. "At first I thought it was a goofy sounding major," he admits. "I couldn't believe there was a whole field of study for it."
For the past 30 years, career-oriented majors like turfgrass science have been popping up in colleges nationwide, as an increasing number of students feel this kind of specialization will make them more competitive in tight job markets than a broader degree in liberal arts and sciences. As of 2004, about 80 percent of all U.S. four-year institutions now offer degrees in practical studies—fields rooted in preparing students for a specific vocation. Studies show that some 60 percent of all undergraduates are enrolled in career-oriented majors, up from 45 percent in the 1960s. But not all educators agree on what qualities employers are looking for in recent college grads, and many worry students are not being properly prepared for the future.
Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College, says there is a danger of overspecializing on the undergraduate level because it could prevent students from developing the broader critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills that graduates need to succeed in a competitive job market. "I think that if you specialize too early, you may think you're getting a boost in the short term, but you will not be prepared in the long term for the kinds of varied careers that students are going to have in this century, and certainly not be prepared for leadership roles in those careers," he says. Amherst is one of 95 remaining U.S. colleges with no graduate school where 80 percent or more students study liberal arts and sciences. These schools now make up less than 1 percent of the total enrollment in the U.S., according to the latest Carnegie Classifications.
Marx says pragmatic skills can be learned on the job or in graduate or professional school programs, but a well-rounded education is harder to replicate. "Particularly in a world that's changing, where students move from one career to another, where the challenges keep shifting, where the global issues confront us, those challenges you can't provide for in on-the-job training," Marx adds. "I think employers recognize that."
Others disagree. "It's not like these universities are making up these degrees and then thinking there will be some demand for it," says Randall Hansen, founder and president of Quintcareers.com, a job search and career advice website and author of the The Complete Idiot's Guide to Choosing a College Major. Employers have been the ones coming to schools and asking for graduates with specific technical skills for years, he says.
Penn State's turfgrass program, for example, began in the late 1920s at the request of some golf course superintendents who asked the college to assist with research and offer academic preparation for people entering the field, says A.J. Turgeon, a professor of turfgrass at the school. For some 70 years, the program existed as a major in agronomy with a concentration in turfgrass and enrolled an average of 50 students each year. When the school decided to make turfgrass its own major in 1992, enrollment boomed and would have kept rising if the school hadn't capped it at 200 students, Turgeon says. The spike in applicants suggests that people feel their employment prospects increased with more specialized academic training, he adds.
This is a common mindset among students and parents who realize that having a college degree, regardless of its focus, is no longer a guarantee for employment, says Marc Scheer, an education researcher and author of the book No Sucker Left Behind. He says pressure to choose the right major is greater than ever because of the rising cost of education, causing students and parents to start treating college more like an investment than academic endeavor. "I view students as consumers," he says. "You have to consider the financial cost and the financial benefits."