Choosing a college major was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. Like many, I arrived at Michigan with no burning interests and soon found myself in the non-engineering, non-medicine academic purgatory. At the advice of my academic advisor, I completed my general requirements, hoping something would spark my interest. I was constantly evaluating disciplines, gauging my interests and, yes, determining practicality and future earnings.

A similar type of evaluation was made by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory last Tuesday. On a political radio program, the Republican governor advocated strongly for vocational studies. He explained that there’s significant demand for skilled laborers with six-figure salaries and only more jobs to come. He argued that many courses currently being offered at state universities and community colleges are not adequately preparing students for the workforce.

At one point he even questioned, “What are we teaching these courses for, if they are not going to help get a job?” He immediately retracted this statement, however, claiming that he’s not trying to devalue liberal arts education, but simply questioning the “skills” gained. McCrory further explained, “if you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if that isn’t getting someone a job.”

North Carolina college students, the Huffington Post and even conservatives have attacked these statements, arguing that McCrory is belittling intellectual thought and critical thinking. His statement raises concerns about equal opportunities for education, as well as the monetary value of different types of degrees.

A 2012 study by Georgetown University illustrates the governor’s point. It claims that “the risk of unemployment among recent college graduates depends on their major … Unemployment rates are generally higher in non-technical majors, such as the arts (11.1 percent), humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent), social science (8.9 percent) and law and public policy (8.1 percent).” Additionally, The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that about 17-million college graduates are underemployed, meaning that they’re working in jobs they’re drastically overqualified for or working fewer hours than they’d like. The bureau also reports the unemployment rate for young people with vocational training as significantly lower than that of graduates with general degrees.

McCrory is struggling to justify putting tax dollars toward programs that don’t lead to future careers. His comments undervalue intellectual studies and gloss over the countless successful gender studies majors. Additionally, many educational subsidies contribute to student aid programs, which are critical in providing equal opportunities to students. Regardless of McCrory’s flawed commentary, these statistics demand attention. The goal of education funding should be to provide every individual with a fair chance to succeed academically and in the workforce. But we aren’t effectively providing the latter.

Like leaders from both political parties, I believe that higher-education reform is critical in fixing our economy. We need to find ways to place competitively trained individuals in fields where there’s demand, while also allowing them to study subjects of their choosing.

Taking away academic opportunities, like McCrory implies, isn’t the answer. We need to instead educate students at the high-school level about what job opportunities are in demand. This allows individuals to discover a balanced career path that takes into account their skills and future earning goals. Furthermore, streamlining student aid to cut back on fraud and absurd tuition costs would save billions. This money could then support vocational programs and provide incentives for students — moving toward the ultimate goal of a balanced workforce and reducing the influx of underemployed individuals. These are big ideas requiring extensive debate, and now the stage is set for significant education reform.

At the end of my sophomore year I became an economics and art history double major. Though an economics degree may seem the more practical choice, many of the art history classes have proved more insightful than any supply-and-demand graph. There’s no hierarchy for academic thought, and McCrory is wrong to suggest otherwise. I decided on my own career path based on my interests, but very much so on my talents and future employment opportunities as well. Other students should be allowed that same choice but must understand the realities attached to it.

Timothy Burroughs can be reached at timburr@umich.edu.

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