Want to spend a couple of unproductive hours on the internet? Google the question: “Does your college major matter?” You’ll find countless articles offering unequivocal yes’s and no’s, followed by dissenting reader comments diametrically opposed to the author’s. Articles imploring young people to “follow your passion” are littered with negative comments bashing such advice as quixotic, privileged, and sure to result in a nation of theater majors who are buried in debt and sweeping floors at Burger King. Articles cautioning young people to pick a major that is “a good investment” are countered by anecdotal examples of billionaires (usually Steve Jobs studying calligraphy at Reed College) and platitudes about “reaching for the stars.”

Here’s the truth: for some people major will matter very much and for others it won’t matter at all. No global, one-size-fits-all approach is helpful. The only thing that matters is whether major selection is going to matter for you. Let’s take a look at the factors that you should consider.

I want be X so I need to major in X

In math, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In career planning, this can sometimes be the case but is not a hard-and-fast rule.

Many aspiring lawyers assume that selecting a Pre-law major is their best bet. Interestingly, the American Bar Association states that it “does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education.” There are good reasons for this as average LSAT scores for those who major in the classics, philosophy, and math are far greater than those who studied law in undergrad. Criminal Justice majors actually have the lowest average LSAT score of any group.

Countless students with an eye on med school mistakenly believe they must major in the biological sciences. This can be a prudent path but is far from a compulsory one. In fact, only about 50% of students enrolled in U.S. med schools majored in the biological sciences. The other half majored in everything from mathematics to the humanities. “Yeah,” you’re probably thinking, “but how do humanities majors fare on the MCATs?” Out of all matriculated med students, the humanities majors actually outscored the biological sciences majors by a sliver of a point on the MCAT. This isn’t to argue that one could major in drama, avoid all undergraduate math and science coursework and jump right into med school. Medical schools all have prerequisites that include multiple biology, chemistry, and calculus courses—but fulfilling these credits does not require you take those courses as part of a related major.

Don’t become a widget

Parents often fret when their college age kid elects to major in something along the lines of Latin or The Classics. The fear, of course, is that these are antiquated fields of study that will leave their child able to recite the works of Cicero in their original language but unable to earn a living wage. This fear, while understandable, may actually be obfuscating another more realistic fear, lurking in the unpredictable haze of the 21st century economic/higher education world—the fear of majoring in an overspecialized major.

Many colleges now offer flavor-of-the-month majors that are so overspecialized, one’s degree could quickly be made obsolete by the shifting winds of the modern economy. It’s easy to point to obvious examples of specialized jobs that have disappeared from the modern economy such as bowling alley pinsetters or a VCR repairman. But a more subtle examination better illustrates the point. For example, within the IT field, thought by many to be rock-solid, certain areas of expertise are in demand while others have faded into oblivion. As the subfield of mobile communications has exploded, many tech giants like HP and Microsoft have been laying off workers en masse, handing out pink slips to 69% more workers in 2015 than in 2014.

This is hardly a new pattern. The IT was a field on fire in the late 90’s, crashed in the early 2000s, ran wild again for a few years, crashed again in 2008…such is a life in a volatile industry. The point, as far we’re concerned, is that a successful IT worker over this time period needed to be a well-schooled generalist—versatile, adaptable, and constantly able to learn new skills. Someone who made themselves into a widget in the IT world and possessed only a narrow skill-set would not have fared well.

Penn State offers a major in Turfgrass Science, which despite being around since the 1920s and producing countless golf course managers, is a prime example of an overspecialized degree. What happens if in a decade from now golf courses switch over to yet-to-be-invented synthetic greens that require no expertise or maintenance? The University of New Hampshire offers a concentration in EcoGastronomy which focuses on hospitality and healthy eating. What happens if the trend in the U.S. toward healthy, organic, sustainable (and more expensive) foods fades in the next decade due to   a massive economic downturn? We’re not saying that either of these highly specified majors or the hundreds of other like them are not the right choice for some students; simply that they should be thoroughly researched and approached with caution. 

Passion matters

When it comes to landing your first job out of college or gaining admission at a top graduate or professional school, GPA matters. Here’s something you may not have considered—studies have demonstrated that students who major in an area that they are excited about earn higher GPAs than students who force their square peg creative self into a “more responsible” round hole. Further, passion for one’s choice of major has been found to be a greater predictor of GPA than standardized test scores.

You might be thinking, “Okay, that’s all well and good with the higher GPA, but how will my son/daughter earn a living?” Get ready to be surprised. History majors who enter the business arena earn, on average, the same pay as business majors. By mid-career, philosophy majors enjoy a higher median income than architecture, accounting, or marketing majors. There are countless statistics along these lines and they all point to same conclusion: major can influence future financial success but it is not as straightforward as many parents believe.

Final thoughts

Right now in every corporate finance 101 lecture hall, there are at least a couple of students daydreaming about British literature, documentary filmmaking, or Cold War history, perhaps resenting that parental or societal pressures and neuroses that have landed them in fields incompatible with their interests. We encourage these caged birds to fly away to a major better aligned with their own passions. Money is always waiting to be made by bright, talented, and articulate people, whether or not they have a degree that is perceived as lucrative.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).