Quartz recently published an article by Jonathan Wai titled, “Your college major is a pretty good indication of how smart you are”. For those who are unfamiliar with the news source, you are not alone! I recently discovered it through following The Atlantic via social media. Quartz ‘is a digitally native news outlet, born in 2012, for business people in the new global economy.’ Most of the news stories pertain specifically to the business crowd and the world market. Maybe that’s why I found Wai’s article on this web site so important to address. It’s aimed at a very different crowd than most of the big outlets we follow for our own professional development. If we were not Student Affairs professionals, how would be interpret Wai’s data?
Wai explores five different standardized test sets between the years of 1946 to 2014 to explore academic aptitude as it relates to a college student’s (or in some cases, a high school student’s) selected major.
Data comes from the five following tests, listed with timeframe of data collected:
- Army General Classification Test (1946)
- Selective Service College Qualification Test (1951)
- Project Talent (early 1970s)
- Graduate Record Examination (2002 to 2005)
- SAT Report on College & Career Readiness (2014)
General conclusions are that education and agriculture majors have consistently scored at the lower end of the scoresheets on all five of these standardized tests. On the contrary, engineering and science majors are consistently topping the chart as far according to the scores. In short, students with high academic aptitude pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education) majors, while students with lower scores are seen in education, social science, and agriculture majors. Wai points out that there are a number of caveats to this conclusion. For our purposes as advisors, instructors, and mentors: Intelligence is not exclusively manifested in the selection of your major or within a standardized test. This applies to us, the faculty and staff we interact with, and the students we serve.
I don’t dislike the article, the conclusions, the author, or this news outlet. I feel like it provides an opportunity to discuss what our culture interprets as ‘smart’. It reminds us of assumptions we should notice when assisting students in discovering the right major.
If any group of professionals can understand and harness the power and ability of the individual student, it’s us in Student Affairs. While professions thrive on data and statistics to have an understanding of the economic and cultural landscape, we see the other factors indicate intelligence and success in a career on a daily basis.
Emotional intelligence, a sense for leadership styles, and an understanding of communication are equally relevant skills. They can’t be measured in exactly the same ways as literacy and mathematical ability. Some may consider these to be soft skills, but when it comes to performance they create a gap of their own. Brilliance and genius as indicated by a test does not translate into the ability to execute every part of a job flawlessly.
This article has presented data that may or may not shock us. The importance of our work with students remains the same. We need to remain aware that we may not be interpreted in the same light outside of our professional community. Employers, parents, faculty, (and let’s face it, even we) can be biased at times. A stereotype has been pre-built for every major at this point, whether it’s based on data-driven research like Wai’s or by a college meme site that has categorized majors by Disney princesses or bar drinks. That doesn’t mean the person in front of you is a culmination of any of those assumptions.