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A drawing of a rose next to a drawing of a loaf of bread.

Sketchify Spain (rose) and pch.vector from MW's Images (bread).

I understand better than most professors why students are wary of majoring in the liberal arts. College costs have risen 169 percent since 1980, and hope of government help for those who finish in debt—with an average burden of $29,100—seems stymied, now more so than ever. Students urgently need jobs soon after they graduate, when the years of repayment begin. I get that, because like most of my students, I was a first-generation college student and only recently paid off my student loans—shortly before my daughter began college.

Situated in an economically depressed city in upstate New York, where I spent my childhood until a scholarship swept me out of the working class, Utica University, the institution where I teach, promotes itself as giving first-generation college students that chance for social mobility. Forty-one percent of entering students qualify for federal Pell Grants, an indicator they come from low-income backgrounds. In 2016, when we were still Utica College, we made national news for our “tuition reset,” which recognized that few students paid full tuition, and so reduced it 42 percent in the name of transparent pricing.

During the pandemic, my colleagues and I took a 7.625 percent pay cut when we thought the college was in difficulties. I thought I had spent my career at a place where everyone was willing to make sacrifices to give students a chance to pursue a career, own a home and educate their children—all the advantages of a middle-class life.

That belief changed by the time our president and Board of Trustees announced a review of majors for possible “sunsetting”—a review that resulted in the cutting of 13 majors, including liberal arts majors in such fields as anthropology, geoscience, philosophy, sociology and Spanish.

All of this feels like packing away the fine china because the rabble are coming to tea. As Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, points out, if the liberal arts are so useless, why are the rich bribing their children’s way into elite liberal arts institutions? Are the liberal arts only for the rich? Ironically, I find myself enlisted in the effort to limit access to liberal arts specifically because I chose to work with first-generation college students.

Our trustees say they are following what students and employers want. Student demand was inferred from what programs high school students applied to—in other words, those they recognized. For students who are the first in their family to attend college, however, academia speaks a foreign language, and no one provides a dictionary. “General education” sounds like something one doesn’t really need but that eats up two years of tuition. Only after completing it did I realize it taught me skills employers want, such as critical thinking and communication.

Similarly, nothing in my early life gave me an understanding of what it meant to study philosophy or geoscience—to mention two of our majors that have been deemed irrelevant. Whom did I know who worked in either? To major in them without understanding what jobs they led to would have seemed profligate. And yet, philosophy graduates earn a median income of $55,000, rising to $78,780 for philosophers who work as postsecondary educators, while geoscientists enjoy a median income of $83,680.

I majored in journalism, with a second degree in English, just for fun. But English, as it turns out, is where I have made my living. Our program survived the cuts, but our trustees dictated changes to the curriculum that replace literature requirements with job training. We are being asked to prepare students for a career in editing, for example, at a time when editorial assistants strike for a living wage.

No doubt editorial skills would be valuable for all our students, but they require a deep understanding of how stories, novels, essays and poems work—one developed in the very courses edged out. There’s a bait and switch going on here. The goal appears to be not to prepare students for a professional career, but to reassure them that a recognizable job prospect awaits—even if it will not sustain them.

Faculty weren’t made privy to how employer demand was determined, or what kinds of workers the board expects us to turn out. But with a board largely made up of—surprise!—local employers, and an average income in Utica of $23,872, we can assume low expectations were part of the profile. I fear local employers want students who are just educated enough to fill their positions, but not so educated that they could compete in more prosperous parts of the country, against their better-prepared peers.

Many an English professor has written about the death of our major, lyrically celebrating the intangible benefits of the life of belles lettres. Often there is a preciousness to this discussion that chimes harshly with student concerns at an institution like mine. But the liberal arts need not be painted as a luxury available only to those who can pay; they have practical benefits, too. Education was not meant to limit life choices. We want bread and roses, too.

Lisa Orr is a professor of English at Utica University and the author of Transforming American Realism: Working-Class Women Writers of the Twentieth Century (University Press of America/Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). She publishes both scholarly essays, including a forthcoming piece in Western American Literature, and opinion pieces in venues including The Huffington Post and The New York Times.

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