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As students head back to college this month, many have yet to choose a major. When they do decide, they should keep a wide divergence in mind. It appeared awhile back in a headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Business and Academic Leaders Disagree on Quality of College Grads.” The disagreement emerged in two polls by Gallup, one for Lumina that asked Americans, including business leaders, about the cost and quality of higher education, the other for Inside Higher Ed that queried academic officers about the academic health of their campuses.

In the Lumina survey, only 33 percent of business leaders agreed that colleges are producing graduates with the skills their organizations need.

On the other survey, though, nearly all academics (99 percent) claimed their institutions were “at least somewhat effective at providing a quality undergraduate education, with 72 percent saying they are very effective in this area.” Oh, they know something’s wrong overall—38 percent of college leaders admitted that academic rigor has fallen in higher education generally—but not at home: Only 10 percent admitted it had fallen at their own schools. While 44 percent agreed that grade inflation has affected higher education generally, only 14 percent said so for their own schools.

On the relevant goal of “Preparing students for the world of work,” 56 percent claimed “Very effective” and 40 percent “Somewhat effective.”

That makes for a sixty-point difference between what employers and what academics think about the workplace value of higher education. It suggests that the general education imparted by campus culture and basic curriculum should, at the very least, be regarded skeptically by students.

Two words of advice for freshmen and sophomores.

One, take courses with serious liberal arts content—Great Books readings (not pop culture), world religions, important histories (the Reformation, Imperial Rome), another language, logic. Employers want people who can read, write, and think, people who know things.

Two, check the Occupational Outlook Handbook, issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which rates the competition for jobs in hundreds of fields and explains the qualifications needed for each one.

There is a lot of marketing in higher education, with admissions offices enticing applicants and departments trying to fill courses. Wiser students will demand syllabi with rigor and profundity, and they will realize that the friends they have in school will become competitors for jobs when school ends.  

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