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Credit: Alice Heyeh

Penn is a fan of nickel-and-diming its students, keen to charge us $0.07 for each page we print. Students have long mocked and criticized such behavior, but hypocritically, we have begun to pick up this practice ourselves. Only this is done in a different context — we flock to fields of study that generate the highest income.

It is hardly surprising that there has been a significant decrease in the number of students pursuing degrees in the humanities over the past few years. The Daily Pennsylvanian recently published an article citing an over 40 percent decrease in students majoring in subjects such as history and psychology between 2005 and 2014. 

The main reason for such a trend is transparent — STEM fields are considered less risky. Secure job positions and a growing demand for scientists lure hundreds of thousands of incoming college freshmen into pursuing a field they might not truly be passionate about. 

Over the years, competition across a large variety of jobs has dramatically increased. A growing pool of talented youths compete against each other for positions that may drastically be shrinking. Therefore, particularly following the 2008 financial crisis, when young adults watched their parents and relatives struggle with maintaining their jobs, a much heavier emphasis has been placed on prospective income rather than pure interest when considering majors in college and career paths. 

Such student preference is apparent from course enrollment trends. Penn’s computer science department has had to create long waitlists for many of their courses, with many students outside the CIS majors keen to enroll in these classes. Often, students who enroll do so out of a pressure to learn coding instead of a genuine interest in understanding computing languages. After all, in the 21st century atmosphere of technological advances, we are constantly told that such STEM skills will become more necessary in the future. Such enrollment, driven not by interest but by obligation, only reflects one of the many problems in our choice of classes and careers. 

In 2017, Wharton reduced the foreign language requirement from four semesters to two. Scott Romeika, Wharton’s director of academic affairs and advising, justifies this decision by claiming that doing so would help “put out a cutting-edge 21st century business education.” The decision stirred debate over the already declining interest in the field of language studies. On Quakernet, Penn’s student and alumni database, there are currently only 31 declared Hispanic studies minors and three majors currently enrolled at Penn. Wharton’s decision only further discourages students from pursuing the humanities, essentially staking the claim that a better business education is more important than the ability to communicate with people around the world. 

Furthermore, there are multiple STEM specialized programs, but few exist for the humanities. Even though the University tries to offer a liberal arts education that encourages the pursuits of all careers, the reality remains that students are more encouraged to pursue the sciences instead of humanities. And many will continue doing so because of the pretty figures that matriculation from those programs have generated for past students. 

Credit: Alex Fisher

I am personally conflicted about this matter as well. Growing up in a family of doctors and engineers, I was always encouraged to pursue the sciences, as they would provide the most practical path and steady income in the future. However, I discovered the beauty of the English language during middle school, and ever since then, I have been entranced by English literature, linguistics, and Spanish. 

When I told my parents I wanted to double major in Hispanic studies and the biological basis of behavior, my father’s immediate reaction was to tell me that acquiring a major in a foreign language was impractical. It would be a safer bet for me simply to attend medical school, toil through the seven years and study hard, and emerge as a high-paying doctor. I’ve always been passionate about the sciences, and am constantly amazed by the capabilities of technological advances in saving lives. However, I too know that I might be happier taking solely linguistics and Spanish classes. Deciding between a practical and high-paying field of study that I like and a less stable career that I love continues to be a struggle that I face on a daily basis. 

There are a few things that Penn could do to encourage students to at least consider both STEM and the humanities. Penn could try to curate more programs geared toward integrating different fields of humanities or integrating humanities with STEM. The new digital humanities minor is a perfect example of an attempt to bridge the gap between two contrasting fields. It is important to learn the technological tools that can aid humanities majors in their research. However, students shouldn’t feel pressure to forgo the humanities to pursue more lucrative careers that may come with studying STEM. 

I, too, am guilty of the nickel-and-diming that is prevalent among Penn students. Even though at the current stage it may seem somewhat hypocritical for me to say, I do believe that it is important to continue pursuing fields where your passions lie. If you want to make a career out of philosophy or art history, allow no one to dissuade you.

LILIAN ZHANG is a College freshman from Beijing studying the biological basis of behavior and Hispanic studies. Her email address is lilzhang@sas.upenn.edu.

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