Who Studies the Arts and Sciences? Social Background and the Choice and Consequences of Undergraduate Field of Study

Article excerpt

For several decades now, social scientists interested in the relationship between higher education and social stratification have directed their research efforts toward evaluating how college access is conditioned by students' social background characteristics. Studies have examined both the overall correlates of entry into postsecondary education (Alexander, Pallas, & Holupka, 1987; Choy, 2002), and, paralleling the rise of hierarchical differentiation among universities, the factors associated with entry into particular institutional locations, such as two-year versus four-year institutions, highly selective institutions, and types of graduate programs (Alexander, Holupka, & Pallas, 1987; Hearn, 1984, 1991; Karabel, 1972; Karen, 2002; Mullen, Goyette, & Soares, 2003). However, in comparison to the abundance of research directed towards access and inter-institutional differentiation, the topic of intra-institutional differentiation has largely been neglected. While we have learned much about how social background predicts college destination, we know very little about its effects on choice of curriculum once at college.

Just as universities may be classified by type or selectivity, an analogous set of divisions exists for university curricula, corresponding to profound and enduring philosophical differences around the purpose and value of a college education. Those advocating liberal learning envision the university as an idyllic setting in which students devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual growth, temporarily free from the material demands of life. Liberal learning values breadth of knowledge over narrow specialization and holds an appreciation of learning for its own sake rather than for utilitarian ends. Training in the liberal arts is believed to strengthen a student's character and to develop qualities such as reason, judgment, and a sense of social obligation. Traditionally, a liberal arts education was designed to prepare elite students with the qualities needed to govern (Brint, 1998; Kerr, 1991; Levine, 1986). The classic liberal arts curriculum historically consisted of Latin, Greek, philosophy, history, and science and now typically includes the arts and humanities, social sciences, math, and natural and physical sciences. (1)

The counterposition presents a practical vision of college as an institution that provides a concrete value to both students and society in the form of early career training. In this view, a university education trains a student for his or her desired occupation or profession. By providing specialized occupational training, a college degree provides the key to economic and social mobility for those less advantaged. At the same time, institutions of higher education cooperate with business and industry to fill their needs for a skilled workforce. Those valuing a college education for its utilitarian purpose promote specialized vocational or preprofessional training. Vocational fields include those designed explicitly to provide a student with the practical skills and job-related competencies necessary for entry into a specific occupation or profession, including business, education, engineering, health professions, and public administration. Currently, vocational fields are the most popular choice among undergraduate students, accounting for more than 60% of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the 1996 academic year (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999). (2)

While debates on college curricula have raged for well over two centuries (Bonvillian & Murphy, 1996), we currently know very little about how curricular divisions correlate with students' social background. If historically elite male students studied the arts and sciences in preparation for roles of leadership and power, is this still the case? If it is, how strong is the relationship between social background and choice of field? Does it hold across gender and racial groups? …