A Practical Education
Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees
Randall Stross


Chapter 1

The Major Decision

Stanford University's undergraduates are a most fortunate group. Having been admitted to the most selective undergraduate school in the country and installed on an Edenic campus, they could not be any closer to Silicon Valley. Only a stone’s throw or two beyond the edge of campus sit tech giants and tech adolescents and tech startups, which surveys anoint as the most desirable prospective employers in the world. Stanford undergraduates would seem perfectly positioned to approach their graduation without worry about what comes next.

The most sought-after students are the engineering majors, whose ranks have grown significantly in recent decades. But this is a book about the students who did not choose an engineering major, who instead chose majors for the joy of studying a subject that does not lead to a well-marked occupational destination. Their majors belong to the university’s School of Humanities and Sciences, and many of these students face considerable uncertainty about their futures if they immediately seek professional positions without an advanced degree. For this book I have collected oral histories from their ranks, chronicles of the education, job searches, and initial work experiences of recent graduates. I’ve gathered enough of these histories to convince me and, I hope, convince others that graduates with these majors are well-equipped to land well and to thrive, if employers are willing to give them the chance.

I grant that the students who are profiled here, for the most part, come from privilege. Their parents, many of whom went to Stanford themselves, are financially comfortable. They sent their children to excellent primary and secondary schools and permitted their children, when they got to Stanford, to follow their own interests when choosing their majors. I understand that these students are not a random sampling of college students: these graduates are exceptionally smart and, let us not forget, are the champion go-getters of their age cohort. But they are not the only college students who are smart strivers; every college and university has such students. Whatever claims I make about the quick-learning capabilities of the students I followed at Stanford would apply to these other students, too, the ones who defy the ambient advice to major in business or an applied technical field, who instead major in a field that they genuinely enjoy studying and who excel in their classes.

I don’t make a blanket claim that every student, at every college or university, who elects a liberal arts major will, ipso facto, make an outstanding employee upon graduation by dint of enrolling in the courses and earning passing grades. But those students who do choose for a major an academic field that is not tightly connected with a particular career and who do well in those courses, who demonstrate a sponge-like capacity to absorb new knowledge, whose academic record shows drive and diligence and a capacity for thinking hard and communicating well, should be seen by prospective employers as the multicapable candidates that they are.

If I am to persuade anyone of the practicality of the liberal arts, whether it be future employers, current college students, or the students’ anxious parents, I need to be able to show actual liberal arts majors who are doing well in the workplace. This is why I have chosen to focus on Stanford only. Silicon Valley employers love Stanford graduates, even to the extent that they have been willing to take a chance on liberal arts majors from Stanford. For the most part, the graduates are not hired because of their choice of major but despite it. They were hired in many cases with the help of Stanford alumni connections. But what matters is that they managed to get in the door. Once they did, they were able to demonstrate the broadly useful strengths that characterize those who choose the liberal arts. Their employers then recognized their contributions, which were concrete and not related to the alumni networking, and gave them increased responsibilities, and that led to more achievements. These stories would have remained nothing but wishful hopes had the employers turned away majors that on their face had no relevance to the business. The Stanford tie is what sets the stories in motion, but what transpires once the job is secured speaks to the skills that liberal arts majors bring to their employers, skills that are sharpened in the course of majoring in the liberal arts wherever one earns a bachelor’s degree.

This book also includes an abridged, episodic history of Stanford University, focusing on the tension between vocational and nonvocational directions that was present at its founding, and on the evolution of career counseling and post-graduation job placement. Immersion in this history will reveal how employers have rather arbitrarily changed their minds, again and again, about how and when they would like students to specialize in their undergraduate studies. One field becomes hot, and then it falls out of favor, replaced by another. The employers’ message to undergraduate students is likely to continue to shift in the future, which suggests to me that the best preparation for an unknowable future is one that has been tested over time as universal preparation—that is, the liberal arts.

It is difficult, to be sure, to make this case in the face of considerable evidence that prospective employers of new graduates are far more keen to hire those with majors that are infused with quantitative skills or constitute an occupation-specific field, consigning far more liberal arts majors than engineering majors to first jobs that fit the labor economists’ definition of “underemployed.”1 But not so visible is the way underemployment falls as the graduates spend time in the labor market. Also, lamentably, the casual observer or anxious parent cannot see that the initial earnings gap separating a baccalaureate degree with professional and preprofessional majors, the category that includes business degrees, from that composed of humanities and social sciences majors closes over time. By the peak earning ages, fifty-six to sixty, the humanities and social science majors earn $2,000 a year more, if those with advanced degrees in both categories are included.2

In assembling the oral histories of liberal arts majors to hearten others who will follow, I am recycling an idea that Stanford itself had more than thirty-five years ago. The shaky futures of liberal arts majors were visible in the 1970s, when visitors strolling across campus in the late evening might have come across the sight of students sleeping outside the campus’s career center in tents or on uncovered beds.

In those years, as now, engineering majors had no difficulty in finding prospective employers who were eager to speak with them. But liberal arts majors then, as now, faced challenges. The number of companies that even deigned to meet with them was small; the number of students seeking an audience was large. So the university set up a reservation system, permitting students to sign up in advance for one of the precious few time slots by coming in person to the Career Planning and Placement Center.

On the day that sign-ups began, the more enterprising students arrived in the wee hours of the morning, long before the center opened, to be sure of snagging a slot. When those who arrived at 6 a.m. were too late to get one, students on later sign-up days began their vigils still earlier, at 4 a.m. and then even earlier, setting up tents or dragging their beds out of their dorm rooms.

This conspicuous tableau of liberal arts students desperate to gain access to the more desirable employers was an embarrassment to the university.3 When a new university president, Donald Kennedy, was appointed in 1980, he faced sharp questions from a student reporter about the plight of liberal arts graduates who needed to be “prepared to go into the working world.” Kennedy, a biologist by training who had spent nearly two decades teaching at Stanford and had recently completed a two-year stint in Washington, DC, as Commissioner of Food and Drugs, could have advocated that more students head for STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But instead he defended the across-the-board utility of liberal education. Kennedy said he believed that students’ interests were best served not by preparing them “for just one particular job or occupation” but rather by “making them exceptionally competent and capable people across the full range of activities.”4

Kennedy took pains to show that he appreciated the need to strengthen, in particular, the humanities no less than had his predecessor, a historian. Speaking at a time when Stanford had become the third largest university recipient of federal funding for scientific research and development, he said, “We have to try in the 1980’s to get the humanities where the sciences have gotten.”5

Within his own domain, the campus, Kennedy had the power to bolster the humanities faculty. What he could not do, however, was change the way that corporate employers eschewed students who were humanities majors when they combed through lists of seniors seeking post-graduation employment. In 1979, the number of Stanford students who sought jobs had recently spiked. Five years earlier, the university’s survey of seniors showed that only about one-quarter of the graduating class sought a job immediately after graduation. But the appeal of graduate school had diminished dramatically, and now more than half of the seniors were looking for work.6

“We hear scare stories about humanities graduates busing dishes in restaurants for lack of occupational alternatives,” wrote sophomore Stan Young, in a column for the Stanford Daily titled “Pity the Fuzzy Study Major,” which referred to the campus vernacular that speaks of students either as “techies” or as “fuzzies.” Young was a history major, a choice that made his relatives “blanch.” He was neither the first nor the last Stanford student with a major in the humanities to remark on the strangeness of being surrounded by those preparing “for technological occupations” and continually reminded of “the relative unmarketability of the transcript with which I will leave Stanford.”7

Kennedy understood that liberal arts majors like Young felt anxiety about their future, and he did not promise that a highly desirable job awaited them as soon as they stepped beyond the campus. “One can’t expect to walk into a prefixed kind of occupation,” he told the student reporter. “It’s going to take some experimenting and often that experimenting is going to be painful.” All the university could do, he said, was provide the graduates with “the tools ultimately to cope.”8

Saying that pain lay ahead for those who elected a major in the liberal arts was admirable in its frankness. But it would not serve well in attracting leery students into these fields. In an attempt to send more students down the less-traveled roads that led to indistinct futures, the university’s School of Humanities and Sciences undertook a new initiative. The school, which was the center of liberal arts at the university, encompassing the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences, undertook a survey of a large swath of recent graduates, inquiring into the details of their employment. The next year, it published a brochure, The Major Decision, that drew from the survey and featured profiles of selected students with liberal arts majors, including photos in some cases. It was a showcase of graduates who had found interesting work in places impossible to predict at the time of their graduation.

I was drawn to the students in the brochure who had elected the humanities, the majors that are seemingly most distant from the wish list of corporate recruiters. Students who were warily considering making the “major decision” in favor of the humanities could draw reassurance from the stories of actual graduates, and so, too, could their anxious parents.

In the introduction to The Major Decision, an administrator painted a sanguine picture for liberal arts majors, but it was the students themselves who best articulated the case for their majors. Maryellie Moore, a history major who was the treasurer of Matson Navigation Company, spoke of the critical awareness that she had gained from studying history, which remained with her long after she forgot particular historical dates and events. Barbara Brown, a philosophy major, said she had never foreseen that she would become a manager for the San Francisco Municipal Railway, but

I would almost be willing to go on a soapbox to sing the virtues of a good liberal education. At Stanford I learned how to think critically and in an organized fashion. It is only out in the “real world” that one can see the scarcity of that skill. Not a day goes by that I don’t recognize the value of writing well, thinking logically, and developing work plans in an organized way. A person who gets those abilities out of college is incredibly marketable.9

The gallery of student profiles included an accountant, a writer, a doctor, a dentist, an attorney, and a student who had been a religious studies major who was now a programmer. Michael Crandell had graduated four years previously, and he was quoted in The Major Decision as saying, “I now have a job as a programmer only because I took one course in computer science at Stanford.” He enthusiastically recommended a major in the humanities to others as “general preparation for work in some field that you may not even know of now, and that perhaps no one knows of now.”10

The profile of Crandell was brief and did not explain how he had managed to get that job in programming on the basis of a single course. What subsequently happened to him and his nascent career in programming? Had he stayed in the field, or had his failure to take a full menu of computer science coursework proven to be an insurmountable barrier to advancement? Did the lack of specific preparation trump the amorphous advantage of “general preparation” provided by religious studies in the years that followed?

To find answers from the vantage point of the present, more than thirty-five years after Crandell graduated, I looked for his contact information and any public record of his professional experiences. He was not hard to find—and I immediately got the answer to one of my questions, whether he had stayed in the world of programming: he certainly had. Today, he is the cofounder and chief executive of a software company, RightScale, which offers management tools for cloud computing and has the backing of several prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firms. How had the religious studies major arrived at this destination, beginning with a single programming class while in college? I wrote Crandell to see if he would be willing to meet and supply a narrative of what had transpired after he graduated, and he obliged.

His story begins in 1974, in orientation week, when he was newly arrived on the Stanford campus and sitting with his parents listening to welcoming speeches and advice dispensed by the university’s elders. Of all the inspirational wisdom and homilies that were offered that day, only one thing made an impression. One of the vice provosts predicted that computers would become an enormous presence in everyone’s lives, and that students who did not take at least one course in computer science during their time at Stanford would be effectively illiterate, unprepared for the modern world. It was as if he had distilled career advice for the future into a single word—not “plastics,”11 but software. It made an impression on Crandell, and he followed the advice.

Looking back, Crandell remembers enjoying the introduction to programming class. The students were taught SAIL programming—the SAI in SAIL came from the Stanford Artificial Intelligence lab where the language had recently been developed. The introductory class was large; the lectures were held in an auditorium. Outside of class, students typed their coding assignments on terminals connected to large machines in centralized computer labs. This was before the advent of personal computers, and though the machines were called minicomputers, they were “mini” only in that they were smaller than the mainframes that had preceded them. Near the end of the quarter, when class members rushed to complete assignments, the mere act of saving their work could stress the overloaded system, causing it to crash and lose the work. Still, it was technology that gave students the ability to run their code and see the results immediately, a capability that would draw many talented minds to the field of computer science.12

Two of Crandell’s freshmen suite-mates were engineering students, and both had planned a linear future for themselves: study engineering, get a job, have a career, secure a stable life. No grand plan guided Crandell, however. A course on comparative religion that he took as a sophomore enthralled him. He was introduced to Taoism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and alternative views of Christianity. The course asked the big existential questions: Why are we here? What are we supposed to do with our time here? “It hit me like a train,” he said.

After graduation, he began graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School, but he discovered that the program was not what he had thought it would be. He was following his intellectual curiosity; his classmates were preparing to head congregations, a prospect that did not interest him. He left and returned to his hometown, Santa Barbara, California.

When he looked for a job, Crandell’s religious studies major did not match up neatly with available entry-level positions. But as a humanities major who had had abundant opportunities to hone his writing skills, he was hired to be the editor of Center Magazine, published monthly by a nonprofit organization, the Center for Democratic Institutions, for its forty-five thousand supporting members.

The center’s staff used an outside firm to manage the subscriber lists and handle the printing of the address labels each month. The firm charged the center about $1 annually for each of the member-subscribers. As Crandell settled in to his new job, he saw that the outside firm did very little for the $50,000 it received each year. Were the center to purchase its own minicomputer, for a fraction of what it paid for a single year’s service fees, and manage the labels itself, it would capture significant savings. The programming class that Crandell had taken as a student had not prepared him to write the program and handle the computer’s administration by himself. But it had succeeded in stripping away the aura of mystery that enshrouded computers, and he could accurately gauge the size of the task were it brought in-house. As reluctant as the senior staff members were to embrace what seemed like a risky project, they were persuaded by Crandell’s mantra: we can do this ourselves for much less. The center purchased the machine and realized the savings as promised.

During the day, Crandell worked as an editor; at night, he was the bass player in a rock band. But he fell in love with a woman who was a full-time graduate student and who had a young daughter, and he felt the need to increase his modest income. He decided to learn how to program at a professional level. His father introduced him to an acquaintance, Roger Marcus, an experienced programmer who offered to mentor him. Marcus was employed by CompuCorp, a manufacturer of pricey dedicated word processors, computers that only ran word processing software. They were expensive—CompuCorp’s basic machine cost $10,000 and required the separate purchase of a $3,000 printer—but the ability to correct words at any time and save and retrieve documents led offices to replace electric typewriters with such machines. CompuCorp was located in Los Angeles, but Marcus was not offering a formal company-sponsored internship. The arrangement was wholly informal: Crandell would use a spare machine that Marcus had in the basement of his Santa Barbara home.

“We work in assembly language,” Marcus told Crandell, who said, “Fine!” not having any idea what that meant. Assembly language is a “low-level language,” meant to move bits in and out of particular storage places in a particular chip. Programming in assembly is demanding and exceedingly tedious. Today, most programming is done with a “high-level language,” which insulates the programmer from having to know hardware details. But Crandell had no fear of assembly because “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

Crandell spent about six months studying and coding in the evenings and on the weekends, mastering the Z-80 assembly language. The effort got him the entry-level job he had sought: he was hired by CompuCorp. It was at the company’s lowest salary rung, but it was a significant raise for him. He remembers that when he interviewed for the job, he had heard someone in the room say, “Well, he’s got one thing going for him. He doesn’t have a degree in computer science.” Crandell was not sure what that referred to—perhaps arrogance that the recruiters had observed among computer science majors—but he drily observed about his own religious studies major, “At least it’s a plus!”

He landed at CompuCorp just as the IBM PC was arriving and rendering dedicated word-processors like CompuCorp’s obsolete. CompuCorp, however, could not bring itself to make a less expensive version of its word processing software for the PC market and threaten its single-purpose machines. Crandell saw that those machines would soon disappear, whether CompuCorp acted or not. Crandell decided to leave the company and create word processing software for the IBM PC that would reproduce features in Compu-Corp’s software. He was a one-person startup. He got a copy of Peter Norton’s manual All About the IBM PC, taught himself the C language, and created his own software. He took the bold step of moving out of his office at home—a closet—into an actual office, a converted motel room that cost $250 a month.

The Crandell Development Corporation, as he called his tiny startup, eked out an existence, principally by selling the software to a distributor who paid Crandell $150 a copy and rebranded it for retail sale in Europe for $495 a copy. Crandell hired a programmer to help, then other employees. His little company eventually grew to ten employees before Microsoft introduced its Office suite, bundling the most popular software applications, including Word, into one low-priced package. When Office appeared, demand for high-priced word processing software such as Crandell’s diminished.

Crandell next found an opportunity in developing LaserFAX, software that he licensed to forty other companies to give a PC the functionality of a fax machine. He sold his company to JetFax and became a vice president. Eventually the company would be renamed eFax and would merge with its major competitor, but Crandell left the merged company before it went on to multi-billion-dollar success as J2 Global (“I wrongly thought fax would die much sooner than it did,” he says, looking back.) A short spell as a consultant was followed by stints as chief executive at two more startups.

After Amazon in 2006 launched AWS, Amazon Web Services, which offered computing cycles to anyone for minimal cost, paid for with the same credit card used to buy books at Amazon, Crandell joined with Thorsten von Eicken and Rafael Saavedra, both engineers, to found RightScale in 2007, which initially offered software tools to AWS customers to manage the computing resources that they rented from Amazon. As competing cloud services were introduced by Amazon’s competitors, RightScale expanded its own offerings, giving its customers “cloud portfolio management” that handled many cloud providers simultaneously. These were highly technical services sold primarily to chief information officers of large companies.

Listening to the narrative of Crandell’s professional career, one can hear a receptiveness to wondrous things that has ranged across topics, such as when he explored Saint Anselme’s ontological proof of God’s existence, the subject of his senior thesis at Stanford. Or when he discovered how he could use SAIL programming in the introduction to computer science class to create a rudimentary stick figure on the screen who, with the help of a randomizing function, would stagger along an unpredictable path like a drunken sailor. Later in life, he had not lost that ability to marvel: when Amazon offered to the public the ability to rent Amazon’s own computer infrastructure, at low prices that were unheard of in the industry, he called the moment “mind-blowing.”

Crandell’s career in the software industry shows the creative efflorescence that is seen when an industry is young, still in the earliest stage of the life cycle, still welcoming to individuals who may lack particular credentials. Today, many parts of the software industry are now closed to the enterprising amateur. Would Crandell hire for a software engineering position someone like himself, essentially a self-taught programmer? He says the software world today is different from when he entered. Now a standard query is, where did you get your degree in computer science? But he says he still looks for the engineer who is a self-learner who will put in the hard work to continue learning.

And there are positions in his company for those without a technical background. The day before we spoke, he had interviewed a candidate for a position as “customer success manager,” who would work with customers on the one side and RightScale engineers on the other to resolve problems. This particular candidate’s major was environmental studies, but he had the curiosity that Crandell prizes more than knowledge in a particular intellectual domain. “If he’s willing to log the time and do the equivalent of reading Peter Norton at night, I’m all over that,” Crandell said. “I think the people skills are actually harder to learn than the domain stuff on the technical side.”

When Crandell is asked what advice he would offer to college students looking for a first job, he suggests that they concentrate their searches on smaller companies and startups. These work environments are more open to contributions from the youngest members of the team.

The Major Decision included the testimonial of another religious studies major, Gary Fazzino, who had graduated in 1974 and was working at Hewlett-Packard as a government-relations manager. “My professors at Stanford forced me to learn how to think—the most basic skill of all—through dialogue, reading, and long writing sessions,” he said. This sounds generic, but Fazzino had a good story to tell of his experiences, taking on new subjects about which he knew nothing. He recalled writing a paper on Confucian thought and receiving a distressingly poor grade. “After I picked myself off the floor,” he said, he listened to his professor’s criticism that the paper failed to acknowledge the different elements of Asian thought that formed the context of Confucianism. Fazzino devoted the following months to intense study of Chinese history. “As crazy as it may seem, such an exercise has helped me both in political life and in my work,” he wrote his alma mater. “My effectiveness is measured by my ability to communicate the world of government to citizens and engineers. I must try to understand the people I’m dealing with and the background they bring to an issue before I can hope to succeed.”13

The phrase “as crazy as it may seem” anticipated a skeptical reception to his contention that his religious studies major had any bearing on his current work as a manager at Hewlett-Packard. “As crazy as it may seem” could have been affixed to every testimonial that Stanford collected for The Major Decision. All were attempts to convey that the students’ experiences in the world of work demonstrated that their liberal arts studies had proven to be utterly practical.

In the years that have passed since The Major Decision was published, the labor market’s preference for vocational majors has only become more pronounced. The students’ shift toward the vocational reflects their reading of the labor market and the preferences of future prospective employers. Attempting to sell the liberal arts to undergraduates is premature without employers themselves moving away from the vocational majors. Today, if asked, employers will squirm away from admitting that their preferences have changed, and they will affirm their fervent wish to hire college graduates who have the “soft skills” that liberal education ideally bestows. Ninety-two percent of executives surveyed by the Wall Street Journal in 2015 said that soft skills were equally or more important than technical skills, and 89 percent of these respondents said they had a difficult time finding candidates with those skills.14 Corporate America’s recruiting activities, hiring decisions, and compensation and promotion practices tell a different story, however.

This book seeks to persuade employers to take another look at their hiring practices by reminding them that there is no less need today than before for graduates who have demonstrated an omnivorous hunger for knowledge, who have honed communications skills, who can justifiably claim that their coursework helped them learn how to think. Rather than extolling the virtues of liberal education, as many other authors have already done and done well,15 I have elected a different approach: spending time with Stanford graduates who received a liberal education recently, who did not go on to graduate studies, and who with only a bachelor’s degree in hand found their first professional positions. The oral histories of their individual experiences are sufficiently detailed to show, rather than tell, the usefulness of their education.

The graduates’ stories, which compose about half of the book, may provide some encouragement to current students who are contemplating majoring in the liberal arts but have not yet made “the major decision,” and to their concerned parents as well. I make no claim that the stories constitute a statistically sound sample. Students who have not landed happily could not be expected to be willing to share their experiences. The group portrait is also unrepresentative on the employer side. By definition, the only employers who appear here are the enlightened ones—or the managers dwelling in nooks within less-enlightened organizations who welcomed the liberal arts majors whom I was following. But the stories serve an important purpose in showing to the skeptical what is possible.

I was purposely selective in assembling this gallery in one respect. I decided to focus on the students whose majors were as far from vocational as it is possible to get: those in the humanities. I also restricted my attention to students who had found work in positions that had no apparent connection to the major; no English majors who took positions in corporate communications or music majors who became music teachers. I wanted to show real-life examples of what advocates for the liberal arts claim, that the liberal arts, in the phrasing of Michael Crandell when he was a newly minted graduate himself, are “general preparation for work in some field that you may not even know of now.”

Using the frame of a single campus, we can also follow the history of job searches by soon-to-graduate students and the advice dispensed to them, the changing attitudes of prospective employers, and the methods they used to winnow job applicants. By including the past as well as the present, we can see that at an earlier time, the appreciation of a liberal education was shared by employers as well as students.

I do not hide my sympathies here: I am an advocate for liberal education and I am happy whenever I hear of a liberal arts major who finds a congenial employer. I graduated from Macalester College, a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, but did not go through the harrowing job search that the graduates I follow here undertook. I double majored in history and East Asian languages and cultures, planning on going directly to a PhD program in modern Chinese history. I arrived at Stanford in 1976, having been accepted before graduation, so I never had to peer at the terrifying blankness of the day after graduation without a job. This book project gave me the chance to speak with students with much stronger constitutions than I had as an undergraduate, and to experience secondhand what I had not encountered myself. These students show that obtaining work immediately after graduating from college provides an informal form of graduate education.

My six years at Stanford overlapped a bit with Michael Crandell’s years there, and we must have spent time during the wee hours in the same computer lab, though we did not know it then. In 1982, I completed my PhD in modern Chinese history and discovered there was no job waiting for me in the field. I took a position teaching U.S. history at the Colorado School of Mines, and a few years later I obtained a teaching position at San Jose State University in an unlikely place for a modern China historian: the college of business, where I have remained ever since, teaching courses on strategic management and business-and-society. I taught myself programming, and I’ve written books on technology companies (Microsoft; Google), on venture capital (Benchmark Capital; Y Combinator), and on inventors and entrepreneurs (Thomas Edison; Steve Jobs). For nine years, I wrote the “Digital Domain” column on technology businesses for the New York Times. How I learned on the job is a long separate story, which need not detain us, but I suppose it shows how my liberal education had bestowed “general preparation for work in some field that you may not even know of now.”


1. Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, “Underemployment in the Early Careers of College Graduates Following the Great Recession,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 22654, September 2016. Abel and Deitz, both of whom are on the staff of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, found that between mid-2011 and mid-2014, employment fell among recent college graduates but underemployment rose to more than 46 percent, a level last seen in the early 1990s. STEM majors and accounting, business analytics, economics, and finance majors fared the best in finding initial jobs that utilized their majors; English, history, art history, and other humanities fields had far higher rates of underemployment following the Great Recession. Occupation-specific majors occupied the two extremes: nursing majors had the very lowest rate of underemployment, and criminal justice majors edged out performing arts majors for the top spot, with the highest underemployment rates. See Figure 4 in the appendix.

2. Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2014), 9–10. If those who earned an advanced degree are excluded and graduates with just baccalaureate degrees are compared, an earnings gap between those with a humanities or social science major and those with a professional or preprofessional degree persists. But humanities majors are more likely to earn an advanced degree than all holders of bachelor’s degrees: 42.5 percent compared with 36.3 percent for all BAs. See Norman M. Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend, “Use Data to Make a Strong Case for the Humanities,” Chronicle of Higher Education (December 2, 2016): A23.

3. “Overcrowding Plagues CPPC Job Interviews,” SD, February 4, 1981.

4. “Successor to Lyman as Eighth University President, Kennedy Speaks on Advising, Faculty, Humanities,” SD, August 15, 1980.

5. “New President of Stanford,” NYT, June 14, 1980.

6. “1979 Senior Survey Results,” SD, April 22, 1980.

7. Stan Young, “Pity the Fuzzy Study Major,” SD, January 11, 1980. Young stayed at Stanford to get a master’s degree in history and then went to Harvard Law School, getting his law degree in 1985.

8. “Successor to Lyman.”

9. The Major Decision (Stanford: H&S, 1983), 6.

10. Ibid., 8.

11. “Plastics” refers to the well-known brief scene in the iconic movie The Graduate (1967) that exposes the fatuousness of much of the career guidance dispensed by well-meaning parents and their friends. Benjamin Braddock, the new graduate played by Dustin Hoffman, is pulled aside by a family friend, Mr. McGuire:

“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word,” McGuire says.

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you listening?”

“Yes, I am.”

[Dramatic pause.]


[Confused pause before reply.]

“Exactly how do you mean?”

“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”

“Yes, I will.”

’Nuff said. That’s a deal.”

12. In his profile of University of Michigan undergraduate William (“Bill”) Joy, who was a student at the University of Michigan at exactly the same time as Crandell was at Stanford, Malcolm Gladwell credits the beguilingly responsive nature of the new time-sharing systems that had just been installed at the university for drawing undergraduates into programming. Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown, 2008).

13. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Stanford, Fazzino earned a master’s degree in public policy from Occidental College and an MBA from the University of Washington. He later served two terms as the mayor of Palo Alto. He died in 2012 at the age of sixty. Gary Fazzino, obituary, Palo Alto Online,

14. “Hard to Find: Workers with Good ‘Soft Skills,’Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2016. The article referred in passing to results of a survey conducted in 2015.

15. Notable recent works include Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education (New York: Norton, 2015); Michael S. Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); and Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).