Which college degrees are best? How AI is throwing a wrench in the debate. (2024)

Josephine Perl knows from experience that most college students pursuing humanities degrees inevitably get asked a version of the same question: What will you do to make a living?

It’s an inquiry the 20-year-old philosophy major at Boston University said especially troubles students like her since the launch of ChatGPT.Some predict the artificial intelligence-powered chatbot will decrease the worth of the refined language skills of workers with humanities degrees, credentials that have been declining for the past decade.

As AI has begun to reshape the job market, the types of jobs that could be most impacted by its rise to prominence are slowly becoming more apparent. Though research into the topic is nascent, there are indications that the career prospects for workers in communications and computer coding could be relatively more endangered than other professions.

For now, conclusions about which fields will be hardest hit by bots remain speculative.

“I suspect we’re going to be going through some sort of sea change,” said Manav Raj, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied ChatGPT’s effects on the workforce. "It’s hard for me to tell you exactly what those skills are that will maintain value.”

The uncertainty is looming large over college-goers while challenging popular assumptions about the value of some degrees. The federal government at the same time is gearing up to slap fresh regulations on colleges to ensure students get their money’s worth.

Which college degrees are best? How AI is throwing a wrench in the debate. (1)

The discourse will surely endure as students return to campuses this fall. But Perl, the philosophy major in Boston, hasn’t been deterred by what she calls the “hype” around AI. She’s been writing novels since she was 11 and hopes to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. She feels compelled to go after her dreams of becoming a novelist and wants to write the kind of young adult fiction she read as a kid – a skill she thinks AI won't be capable of simulating.

Other philosophy students she knows are banking on going to law school. She considers that option at times, especially as a student who relies on scholarships to pay tuition.

“Some people are more concerned with being able to make a living," she said.

Are computer science degrees still a safe bet?

The debate over which college degrees will translate into the highest-paying jobs has persisted for decades, particularly as enrollment in higher education became more widespread in the latter half of the last century.

In recent decades, the skyrocketing cost of college and a crisis over student loan debt have forced students and families to consider more carefully which programs will give them the best results. This fall, the number of undergraduates studying computer and information sciences surpassed the number of humanities majors after years of the techies trailing behind.

Six-figure median annual incomes aren’t uncommon for computer science majors who become software developers. New data published Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center also shows student retention in computer science programs was rising in the fall of 2022 when ChatGPT was introduced.

Yet in the past year, chatter on social media has brimmed with anxiety-filled pondering over whether advancements in AI could render programming degrees useless. Some of that fear is understandable, said Todd Thibodeaux, the president of the tech trade group CompTIA, which tracks industry trends.

He doesn’t think radical shifts in the industry will happen quite as quickly as some fear. But the brisk evolution of marketable skills will force students to be pickier about which colleges they attend, he said.

“Don’t go to a school where they’re using books that were written five years ago,” he said.

All the hand-wringing hasn’t fazed Arpita Pandey, a 19-year-old computer science major at the University of California, San Diego. She chose the career path out of a lust for a stable job. There’s a familiarity to the profession, too. Her dad has been a software developer for more than two decades. Like her sister, who also studied computer science, Pandey plans to pursue a master’s degree to make herself more competitive in the job market.

“Having entry-level coding experience isn’t really cutting it anymore,” she said. “We’ve had to start picking up new skills that AI can’t beat us at.”

A lifeline for the liberal arts?

Even billionaire Mark Cuban, who made his fortune selling his technology companies in the early days of the internet, has waded into the discourse. The mogul has long argued that, in the coming decades, AI will bolster employers' desirability for students who study the humanities. In February, Cuban doubled down on that prediction.

“I said this years ago and I’ll say it again, in an AI world, being trained in those liberal arts can be very valuable,” he wrote on X.

College programs in the humanities – which includes subjects such as English and philosophy – have been in crisis for years. Since 2012, the number of students in those majors has declined precipitously, from roughly 240,000 to less than 180,000 a decade later, according to federal data.

“There’s obviously a lot of cause for concern,” said Robert Townsend, the co-director of a project at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences that keeps tabs on the drop in humanities majors.

Data indicates that students at four-year colleges who graduate with humanities degrees earn more on average than workers with just a high school diploma. And despite the often-opaque cost, undergraduate degrees typically set young people on the path to higher earnings over their lifetimes. (Whether other types of college degrees are worth the expense is a trickier subject.)

But return on investment is a complicated notion. Whether students and their parents ultimately feel they've spent their college funds wisely depends on many variables, including which school they attended and how much financial aid they received.

Dennis Ahlburg, an economist and former Texas college president who wrote a book on the humanities crisis, tends to agree with the billionaire entrepreneur. More than anything, Ahlburg said, businesses value good workers who can think critically.

It's hard for families to anticipate which degrees will pay off, he acknowledged – especially when the sticker prices can vary so widely. The advice he gave his 18-year-old son, who is headed off to college soon, was to study something he’s passionate about.

“Life is often a hell of a long stretch to be doing something that you hate,” he said.

Biden plans more college oversight

As the agonizing over AI continues, the Biden administration is preparing to implement regulations to hold colleges more accountable for providing degrees that set students up for success. The policies, which would force schools to provide more detailed information to students about whether certain programs are a wise investment, are commonly referred to as "gainful employment" and "financial value transparency" regulations.

A Supreme Court decision handed down last week weakening federal government agencies could jeopardize those rules, however, by making them more vulnerable to court challenges. The policies went into effect this month, though colleges will have until October to implement the reporting requirements.

Read more:Supreme Court curbs power of federal regulators, overturning 40-year precedent

By that time Katie Priest, a philosophy and communications major at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, will be in her senior year. A lot has changed for Priest since ChatGPT was first launched in November 2022. The app's arrival left her terrified about whether she had set herself on the right career path.

“It was like the end of the world,” she said. But doing some research on AI with one of her professors calmed her nerves, leading her to conclude it won’t be able to fully replace her or others hoping to teach philosophy at the college level.

She hasn't fully escaped the technology's implications, though. Her mom relies on a crafting blog as an extra source of income, she said, and ever since Google introduced new AI features in May, web traffic to the site has plummeted. So has the money her mom was making from it.

Zachary Schermele covers education and breaking news forUSA TODAY. You can reach him by email at zschermele@usatoday.com. Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

Which college degrees are best? How AI is throwing a wrench in the debate. (2024)

FAQs

What degree is best for AI? ›

A computer science degree is a common choice since AI is a subdiscipline of computer science. But a data science degree, which also comes with AI skills, may be equally useful because it's one of the most in-demand.

What degree is AI proof? ›

However, here are some common degrees and fields of study that are relevant to AI: Computer Science: A degree in computer science is a natural foundation for AI. It covers programming, algorithms, data structures, and other fundamental concepts essential for AI development.

Is an AI degree worth it? ›

Earning a bachelor's degree or master's degree in artificial intelligence can be a worthwhile way to learn more about the field, develop key skills to begin—or advance—your career, and graduate with a respected credential.

What is the best degree to get today? ›

A recent study published in the American Educational Research Journal found that engineering and computer science majors provide the highest returns in lifetime earnings, followed by business, health, and math and science majors.

What college has the best AI program? ›

Leading Schools for AI Education and Research
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts. ...
  • University of Washington.
  • University of Texas, Austin. ...
  • University of Pennsylvania. ...
  • Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) ...
  • University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) ...
  • Santa Clara University. ...
  • University of Denver.
Apr 3, 2024

Is Masters in AI worth it? ›

So, by investing time in a master's degree in AI, you obtain an important foundation of skills and knowledge that are crucial in helping you adapt to the rapid changes that are occurring in the field and our world.

Which jobs are in danger due to AI? ›

The Most Vulnerable and Impacted Professions

Roles focused on data analysis, bookkeeping, basic financial reporting and repetitive administrative tasks are highly susceptible to automation. Jobs involving rote processes, scheduling and basic customer service are increasingly handled by AI.

Can you get into AI without a PhD? ›

Companies are hiring machine learning engineers as they seek to grow their AI talent pools. While some say the role requires a Ph. D., others say it doesn't need an advanced degree. One engineer even considers having a Ph.

What is the salary of an AI engineer? ›

AI Engineer salary in India ranges between ₹ 3.0 Lakhs to ₹ 22.0 Lakhs with an average annual salary of ₹ 11.4 Lakhs. Salary estimates are based on 948 latest salaries received from AI Engineers.

Do AI jobs pay well? ›

2 to 4 years (AI Engineer or Senior AI Engineer): $106,894. 5 to 7 years (Lead AI Engineer): $128,396. 8+ years (Principal Machine Learning Engineer): $145,503.

Is AI hard to study? ›

Share: Contrary to the popular misconception, AI isn't complicated or hard to learn. But you must have a knack for programming, mathematics, and statistics to grasp the fundamental concepts. These skills will empower you to analyse data, develop efficient algorithms, and implement AI models.

What degree is always in demand? ›

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees dominate the list of collegiate programs that lead to top-paying careers. While some bachelor's degrees in the humanities and social sciences don't typically offer high salaries, they can provide a foundation for a graduate degree and a more lucrative career.

What is the most useful college degree? ›

Best College Majors to Pursue in 2024
  1. Computer Science. Median salary: $136,620. ...
  2. Healthcare Administration. Median salary: $104,830. ...
  3. Business Administration. Median salary: $76,000. ...
  4. Logistics and Supply Chain Management. Median salary: $77,520. ...
  5. Economics. ...
  6. Management. ...
  7. Management Information Systems. ...
  8. Accounting.

What is the smartest degree to get? ›

Degrees in STEM fields often provide versatile skills applicable across various industries, offering abundant career opportunities. In addition, degrees in business, healthcare, and education are highly valued for their practical applications and potential for impact.

What education do you need for AI? ›

In terms of education, you first need to possess a bachelor's degree, preferably in IT, computer science, statistics, data science, finance, etc., according to Codersera. Prerequisites also typically include a master's degree and appropriate certifications.

What degree is best for intelligence? ›

Examples of areas of majors related to intelligence analysis include data science, intelligence, international relations, operations research and computer programming. Proficiency in one or more languages aside from English is not required but is generally considered helpful in the application process.

What to study to become an AI specialist? ›

To become an AI specialist, you should focus on building a strong foundation in mathematics and programming. Pursue a degree in computer science, data science, or AI-related fields.

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