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A Bloomberg story this morning reports on the rising number of business degrees being issued during this economic slump:

The number of American college graduates holding business degrees jumped 6.2 percent from the end of the recession in 2009 to last year.

More than 12 million Americans, or one in five college graduates, have a business degree, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Four times as many adults hold business degrees as liberal arts and history majors among the nation’s almost 59 million people who have undergraduate degrees.

“Business is a safe harbor,” Kevin Burns, director of career services at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said in a telephone interview. “So a lot of people were getting on the biggest boat they could in turbulent times.”

And the payoff for holding a business degree was highlighted:

The Census Bureau also said yesterday the average American with an undergraduate business degree will earn $2.6 million over a lifetime, about $200,000 more than the average for all people with a bachelor’s degree.

Yet, wouldn’t the very fact that with universities generating large numbers of business-degree holders suggest this lifetime advantage will eventually drop? Considering that the Census Bureau’s numbers are based on averages, there is probably a skew already built in to that $200,000 number: A few extremely high wage earners at the top are pulling up the averages. Take out the top 5% of those high-income earners and the advantage may disappear.

The same can be said for science and engineering majors:

The payoff is even better for engineers, who had the highest average lifetime earnings for college-educated graduates. They can expect to earn $3.5 million during a 40-year career.

This lifetime advantage may also disappear considering…

The growth in science and engineering majors also surpassed that of undergraduate business-degree holders. Their ranks grew to 5.3 million, an 8.2 percent increase from the 4.9 million graduates in 2009.

More troubling is the realization that many of these degree holders are left-brained thinkers. Logic and quantitative reasoning are what count here. We are simply stocking an entire society with like-minded thinkers who see the world from one vantage point. Right-brained thinkers, those creative types who can pull together disparate ends in their thinking processes, who make end runs around the rules rather than follow them, are becoming marginalized. Yet we face a future in which all types of thinkers are going to be needed, not just those standing on the port side of the ship’s deck.

Of course this is a simplistic categorization, and scientists and engineers can be creative thinkers as well. But my intuition informs me that the base condition for these folks is one of left-brain thinking first, with varying capacities for reaching into one’s right brain. We need to be able to, as a society, attack problems from the other side as well.

There is a glimmer of hope:

Attention to liberal arts classes has helped boost the job- placement rate of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, said Roger Huang, the college’s dean. Last year, 99 percent of business undergraduates had job offers, he said.

“There’s something we do here that the market likes,” said Huang, whose school in March was rated No. 1 among undergraduate business programs for the third consecutive year by Bloomberg Businessweek.

Yet, Notre Dame’s program is the exception rather than the rule. It would be nice to see an economy where there is more room for the liberal arts majors as well. Such an indicator could well serve as a metric that reflects a healthier society, and the potential for a brighter future, for everyone.

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