When Choosing a College Major …

My son is a senior in high school. My wife and I are helping him choose a college and what to study. He has diverse interests, and is particularly intrigued by film and media studies, including film production. Even with handsome financial aid offerings, the cost of college can be daunting, as the loans that await the new graduate amount practically to the mortgage on a decent home. He is struggling making his choices, and we are struggling with him.

Of course, part of the difficulty is that none of us have a crystal ball that will tell us whether he will be employed in May 2023 and whether that job will pay him a living wage. The uncertainty leaves out an integral piece of the puzzle. To deal with uncertainty, the best approach often is to rely on statistics, with employment projections, average starting salaries, and projected salary trends being most relevant to answering the question, “How likely is it I will be able to pay my bills.” Some universities publish very detailed accounts of employment and salary data by program, which can help answer the question rather well. With this information, it is possible to create a spreadsheet that compares the size of the resulting loan and other future expenses with likely starting salary and income growth figures for each combination of candidate college and major. From there, the numbers can answer rather clearly , “How likely is it I will be able to pay my bills?”

I don’t know, however, that that is actually the question the spreadsheet answers. I think it’s missing a condition. I think the question the spreadsheet actually answers, in considering average starting salary and employment statistics, is “How can I pay my bills without really trying?” In other words, how can I make walking across the graduation stage a public declaration to Mom, Dad, and to anyone else who will listen, “I’m now financially independent, because this piece of parchment tells me so.”

Viewed through that very utilitarian lens, choosing a university and a major takes no thought. You compile the statistics, plug them into the spreadsheet, sort the data by your projected checking account balance after year one and year five, and choose the top row. Universities can stop sending out marketing pieces. Film studies programs can just shutter their doors now. If the goal of the four-year degree is simply automatic financial independence in the years immediately following graduation, there is no further need for debate.

Woo, that was easy.

The greatest lesson of the baccalaureate degree is that no question or issue is ever that simple, that the subtleties, when considered as they must, tend to dominate the picture. The second greatest lesson of the baccalaureate degree is that “not trying” is not an acceptable option. The question “How can I pay my bills without really trying?” is certainly a possible one, but it isn’t the right one, and entertaining it with any sort of seriousness severely limits the range of choices we have.

A recent study disputes the notion that liberal arts degrees and the institutions that specialize in offering them lead to financial struggle. They don’t. The data actually suggest that graduates of liberal arts programs from elite liberal arts institutions do enjoy upward career mobility, regardless of their family’s economic status. Unfortunately, the study is incomplete, as it focuses just on graduates from “elite” institutions. But it shows that the upper rungs of the income ladder are almost as accessible to graduates of elite liberal arts institutions as they are to graduates of other kinds of elite institutions.

Whether that potential for financial success extends as widely to graduates of other kinds of institutions remains to be researched. The study also didn’t isolate income statistics for STEM majors at elite liberal arts institutions from salary data for graduates of non-STEM programs. So, it would be inappropriate to conclude solely from this article that majoring in a liberal arts field at a liberal arts college provides almost the same guarantee of practically automatic future financial comfort as majoring in a STEM or business field.

“Automatic” is nice, but there are other pathways to career satisfaction and financial stability. Statistics are predictive, not causal; they describe trends, but they don’t determine specific outcomes. It is a fact that graduates of most STEM and business fields tend to make more after graduation than their peers from other majors. How centrally should this reality figure into your college and degree selection?

Very little.

At the risk of writing for a cat poster, let me offer my sincerest advice. Major in what drives you, but have a plan, and stick steadfastly to it. Don’t study something that doesn’t inspire you just so you can lay automatic claim to a higher income bracket. If you have a plan, if you discern a direction, if you settle for nothing but driving forward on that path, willing to drive stick rather than automatic, revving the engine when traffic gets tight and you need to pass so as not get stuck behind some lumbering semi, you will reach your destination. What is the alternative if you commit to your goals? Do you honestly think you’ll settle for being stranded in the ditch? If you have the passion and the vision to fuel you, and you grip the wheel firmly and keep the GPS on, do you think you won’t seek out and seize opportunities to keep moving forward? It might require more effort, and you might, at times, be weary from the road. But isn’t the scenic route sometimes more fun?

Major in what you want, but have a plan, and stick steadfastly to it. “Automatic” is one way, but feel free to take the wheel and drive yourself, with the windows down and the radio up. You’ll get where you want to go, just more happily.