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Monday, July 25, 2011

By degree, geekiness more attractive

David Brooks

How geeky is New Hampshire?

That seems a reasonable question for a New Hampshire newspaper column called Granite Geek to ponder in the dog days of summer. So let’s ponder it.

The lack of an unambiguous Geek-o-Meter means we have to consider proxy measures. Plenty of them leap to mind: percentage of desktops running Linux; per-capita ownership of “Lord of the Rings” DVDs; ratio of Rubik’s Cubes to Pictionary sets in New Hampshire toy stores.

Alas, those aren’t numbers I can easily obtain, and data analysis needs data.

So how about college degrees?

At this point, you might think I’m going to make fun of our state Legislature, which according to the Chronicle for Higher Education has a very low percentage of college degrees compared to other state legislative bodies.

The study found just 57 percent of our elected officials in the Statehouse have an associate, bachelor or graduate degree, the lowest rate of any state in the country. However, the Union Leader pointed out that the Chronicle couldn’t find information for about a third of our lawmakers because their education wasn’t listed on their Web sites, which means the actual percentage is certainly higher.

Still, it’s undoubtedly low compared to other states, which doesn’t seem very geeky.

But I don’t give much credence to this, because New Hampshire’s teeming Statehouse hordes (400 House members alone) makes it tough to compare us with other state legislatures, particularly lawyer-filled, full-time legislatures.

And here’s a balancing data point: New Hampshire is way above the national average in terms of lawmakers with doctoral degrees: 5.7 percent compared to national average of 4 percent, and a mere 2.5 percent in Massachusetts.

So, the Statehouse has lots of non-college graduates and also lots of doctoral degrees. I bet you’d find the same pattern at many tech firms, where plenty of folks find college too restrictive.

That seems potentially geeky, at least.

However, not all college degrees are equivalent, as can be attested by engineering students who watch their humanities-major roommates go out partying. Every adult in the state could have a degree, but if they were all in theater arts, our geek quotient would be minuscule.

Happily, UNH has a database of all the degrees it has awarded in Durham and Manchester during the decade of the 2000s.

So I crunched the numbers, using my own definition, and found that the percentage of degrees that I judged to be geeky (e.g., math, physics) and partly geeky (e.g., biology, psychology) has increased slightly from 2000 to 2010, while a selection of anti-geeky degrees (e.g., English, foreign languages) has fallen a bit.

In other words, using this as a template, we may not be a state of MIT wannabes – anti-geeky degrees still outnumber geeky degrees by 3-to-1 – but we seem to be getting a little geekier.

John Kraus, director of institutional research and assessment at UNH, suspects that this pattern will just accelerate, since I was looking at students who had their majors locked in before the recession began.

“I think we have seen some significant shifting into the more high-tech areas since 2008,” he said. “I think if you look nationally, there’s a lot more focus and interest in programs that are going to get employment.”

That makes sense. A National Association of Colleges and Employers study of bachelor degrees found that people with engineering and computer/mathematics degrees earn, on average, 75 percent more than do people with arts or humanities/liberal arts degrees.

These days, piling up school loans to study chemistry or computer science seems less risky than doing it to study music or Latin.

So our geek quotient, at least as measured by degrees at the biggest state university, is increasing.

Will this be enough to keep us fully employed in the face of Asia’s onslaught of engineering graduates? Speaking as somebody who’s counting on the Social Security system to remain funded by future employees making lots of money, I sure hope so.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or