Choosing a college major: What you need to know
“Buridan’s ass” is a well-known (and unfortunately named) philosophical paradox where a famished donkey sits equidistant between two similarly delicious bales of hay and, unable to find a rational reason to select one over the other, ultimately starves to death. Strangely enough, this rather absurd and morbid 14th century tale is relevant to the dilemma faced by many college students today.
Never before in human history have young people had such an endless array of desirable career paths as they do in 21st century America. The U.S. Department of Education presently recognizes over 1500 academic programs offered by the nation’s colleges and universities. These include everything from your run-of-the-mill liberal arts, social science, and STEM majors to your more unique upstart disciplines such as Blacksmithing (Southern Illinois University), Puppet Arts (UConn), and Race Track Management (U. of Arizona). Given this cornucopia of potential career paths, it is little surprise that settling on a major is a difficult enterprise.
The Age of Exploration
The concept of a 4-year undergraduate degree is becoming an urban legend on the scale of Bigfoot and the Chupacabra. At non-flagship public institutions nationwide, only 19% of students graduate on-time. At flagship institutions, the number climbs to just 36%. Shockingly the 6-year graduation rate across all public and private colleges and universities in the United States is only 56%. There are a multitude of factors behind these abysmal numbers, but the process of settling on a major is right at the forefront.
Research tells us that the best laid plans of high school students frequently falter early into their post-secondary experience. It is estimated that 80% of college students will change their major at least once—the average student will switch a stunning three times before graduating. Even at Princeton University, a campus filled with some of the most driven and focused young people in the world, 70% of this elite student body elect to pull the old major switcheroo.
Let’s pause to point out that switching a major is not inherently a bad thing, and is in some cases an unavoidable outcome. Not every high school senior can be expected to map out, irrevocably, their entire academic and career path. It is perfectly normal for one’s interests to shift and develop as new experiences unfold, and nothing is worse than sticking with an academic path you know is the wrong choice. As the saying goes, “It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than halfway up one that you don’t.”
While changing majors is inevitable for some, others end up abandoning their initial pathway because of poor planning, lack of information, or following misguided outside influences. Math and Science departments tend to see the largest exodus as freshmen receive first and second semester grades far lower than anticipated. These students typically did not seek out the most rigorous options at their high school to ensure that they could handle college-level STEM coursework. Any student pursuing a STEM field should avail themselves of AP opportunities and/or take courses at a local college through dual enrollment. Your first college-level course should not feel exponentially more challenging than those experienced in high school.
Another popular category of major-switchers selected their initial area of study for the wrong reasons. The majority of high students, almost two-thirds, select areas of study that do not match their interests—an extremely odd phenomenon and one that is ultimately counterproductive. Studies have repeatedly shown that students who pick a major in an area of high-interest are more likely to finish their degree in 4 years. Seems obvious enough, but many adolescents feel tremendous pressure from their parents to pursue economically viable and/or prestigious fields. Interest, passion, and enjoyment take a backseat to projected future salary. Yet, outside of a few fields, salary data based on your undergraduate major can be highly unpredictable.
Starting salary data
Articles ranking the highest-paying college majors are easy to find but are typically of little help in selecting a career. A quick glance at any such list and you’ll notice that just about all of the degrees producing the handsomest return on your tuition dollars end with the word “engineering.” This is great news for anyone interested in becoming a petroleum, computer, chemical, civil, electronics, nuclear, mechanical, or electrical engineer and wholly irrelevant news for the other 99% of prospective college students. The fact that the average petroleum engineering major makes $103,000 right out of college does not mean that all you future humanities majors out there should abandon all of your former passions and immediately register for Fossil Fuels 101. Planning the extraction of crude oil from subsurface reservoirs may be lucrative, but it isn’t for everyone.
It goes without saying that the decision on what to do with the next 40 plus years of your life should not be driven entirely by average starting salary figures. However, one should be cognizant of their post-graduate earning potential when selecting what type of school to attend. To ignore this factor can be a set-up for financial distress later in life—stress that with proper planning, could have easily been avoided.
College grads in the bottom quartile of earners actually make less than the average high school graduate. Some of the lowest paying majors include Early Childhood Education, Drama/Theater, Social Work, Library Science, and Psychology. Students entering these fields are wise to avoid incurring unnecessary debt in pursuit of their degrees. The same goes for graduates in STEM fields that do not typically lead to high-income positions right out of college. While engineering and computer science grads enjoy solid starting salaries, meteorology, biology, and zoology majors begin their careers paid below the median college grad. As stand-alone credentials, many undergraduate diplomas, even from elite schools, do not alone qualify someone for a high-paying professional job. It is in these situations that salary data broken down by college major becomes particularly hard to interpret.
Majors dependent upon grad school
Many bachelor’s degrees have limited value on their own but can be parlayed into relatively lucrative careers through continuing one’s education. Psychology is perhaps the ultimate example of this phenomenon. Those with bachelor’s degrees in clinical or counseling psychology enter the field making less than $25,000 on average. Most will find entry-level employment in the behavioral/mental health field, working in positions such as a drug and alcohol counselor, probation officer, group home coordinator, or social worker.
While accounting majors can call themselves “accountants” upon graduation, psychology majors need to pursue advanced degrees to claim such a credential. Master’s level psychologists will more than double-up their bachelor’s-only peers and those who eventually earn a PsyD or PhD will see average earnings above $75,000.
If you plan on entering a grad school-dependent field, make sure you don’t break the bank on your undergraduate education. Students with ambitions to enter fields such as law or medicine should prioritize undergraduate affordability and performance over prestige, given the costs of a professional degree and given the secondary role that college brand plays (to grades and test scores) in the graduate admissions process. Aspiring doctors and lawyers, along with would-be professors and scientists, should also realize that graduate credentials, not undergraduate name, will determine their job prospects.
Don’t end up a starving donkey
As with any element of post-secondary planning, decisions about your college major should be made within the context of the bigger picture of your career and life goals. It’s important to be aware of financial outcomes for graduates in your chosen area but future salary considerations are often highly dependent on future educational attainment. Your own internal compass should guide the major selection process more than any outside voice.
When it comes to post-secondary choices, young people today possess a level of choice that would make Buridan’s donkey’s head explode. If you make your choice strategically and follow your instincts, you’ll be able to successfully pick out the “bale of hay” that best fits into your life plan.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).