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Governor Rick Scott of Florida made headlines in 2011 when he suggested that the state didn't need any more anthropology majors. Now, he's going after psychology majors.
Scott summoned the state's public university presidents to a meeting Thursday at which he'll ask them to make sure that their two most popular majors have 100 percent employment rates, leaving out those who go to graduate school.
Psychology ranks as one of the top two programs at six of the state's 10 universities. And indeed, National Center for Education Statistics data show psychology to be one of the five most popular undergraduate areas of study nationwide, alongside business and the social sciences. The other popular majors vary by campus and include such sure-employment fields as nursing -- so the focus Thursday is expected to be on psych.
The question of undergraduate psych major employability is a raw one in Florida. Last year, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and current presidential candidate, suggested a psychology (or philosophy) major is likely to put a graduate behind the counter at Chick-fil-A. His comments prompted a speedy social media backlash from happily employed psychology majors. And several years before that, a state senator singled out psychology as undeserving of state support.
"When the No. 1 degree granted is psychology and the No. 2 degree is political science, maybe before we ask $100 million more of taxpayers we should redeploy what we have," State Senator Don Gaetz said. "That way we make sure we're not sending graduates out with degrees that don't mean much."
Scott mirrored those concerns in announcing the newest part of what’s called the “Ready, Set, Work” University Challenge.
“Far too many university students are graduating today, some after spending years of their family’s savings and others after taking on decades of debt, not able to find a job. Our state-funded universities can and must do more to help graduates get a good-paying job,” he said in a release. “I am challenging all state universities to better align their degrees with a student’s opportunity to get a job when they graduate.”
Florida university presidents are broadly, if sometimes tentatively, on board with the governor’s goals.
“The general principle, and this is something I support as a university president, is that every student seeking employment at graduation will have a job,” University of Florida President Kent Fuchs told The Gainesville Sun. “There are costs, but the goal of having full employment for our students is something I support. I’m not concerned just about the top two majors but to increase employment opportunities for all majors.”
Some faculty members, however, are concerned Scott’s challenge places too much responsibility for employment on professors who ought to be concerned with providing a comprehensive, well-rounded education. And they say that defining a liberal arts discipline as the governor has shows a lack of appreciation for the way higher education works, and for a major that in fact has plenty of employment and graduate school options.
“I guess the part that scares the faculty, including me, is the idea that we're kind of responsible for so many young adults and for their outcomes,” said Jeffrey Cassisi, chair of the University of Central Florida’s psychology department, to the Orlando Sentinel. Professors don’t want to be on the hook for uncertain or uncommitted students, he explained.
Jane Halonen, a psychology professor at the University of West Florida who put together a report defending the major’s popularity after Senator Gaetz’s comments said, however, that that isn’t the aspect of the challenge she finds troubling.
The paper, "Are There Too Many Psychology Majors," says, "Parents sometimes fret when they hear their children are choosing psychology as a major when they enter college …. [But] the fear about employability with a bachelor's degree is not completely justified." Instead, it argues, that while a psychology bachelor's degree won't make someone a psychologist, it prepares them for entry-level positions in plenty of other fields -- social work, for example, or an assortment of management positions. The paper also quotes one psychology professor, who says, "You study psychology so you won't be a jerk."
Halonen said she isn't worried professors carry too much of the responsibility for their students' careers. “That is an orientation that might have worked 40 years ago,” she said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. Universities in today’s economy must be mindful of their students’ futures in the workforce.
Rather, she said, “[Scott] is partly right and, of course, partly wrong, which is how psychologists are trained to look at the world.”
On the one hand, his challenge highlights the need for universities to do a better job preparing psychology undergrads for their careers and informing them about the opportunities available via a psych degree, Halonen said. But on the other, it perpetuates the misconception that someone with a psychology or liberal arts or social sciences degree “is going to walk across that stage and walk into a job that reflects that discipline.” Rather, census data show many go on to work as managers or in social services or education.
“A lot of people assume they know what it is when they really don’t,” she said of psychology degrees. “Psychology has a lot of flexibility.”
Still, she said, universities should be doing more to help students, not to mention politicians, understand that. “You can end up being qualified for lots of different things, but you have to know how to pitch it and where to look.”
With an eye toward addressing exactly that, the American Psychological Association, via a committee Halonen chaired, recently updated its undergraduate psychology major guidelines with an increased focus on professional development. Helping students "develop meaningful professional direction for life after graduation" and related career-centric goals are now central to APA's recommended undergraduate curriculum. The new guidelines also emphasize psychology as a liberal arts degree that can prepare students for a variety of careers.