Choosing a College Major

One of the most anxiety producing questions that students are asked is  “What are you going to major in when you get to college”? Well-meaning teachers, family and friends pepper high school students, even freshmen, with this question again and again.  It can feel like a lot of pressure!

But as students ponder this decision, consider this: college students change their mind at least 30% of the time, according to the Department of Education.  And some data suggests that it could be even higher! In fact, less than one-third of all college graduates end up working in their field of study.

How many 17-year-old seniors are certain of their life’s path? Yet, most colleges ask incoming freshman to commit to a major when applying, and a few elite colleges even tell applicants that they won’t be able to change majors once admitted! Students worry that declaring “undecided” means their admission chances are lowered, but not true at most colleges.  

Many counselors are still advising students based on old data or common myths. Jeffrey J. Selingo, the author of “There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know about Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow”, recently discussed the current maxim that STEM majors are where the big money is.  Selingo states that computer science and engineering top the pay scales right now, but not every field within those majors guarantee that a graduate makes it to the top of the pay scale. Selingo states that English and History graduates who make just above the median lifetime earnings do pretty well compared to business or STEM grads.  

Business majors, the most popular undergrad degree, typically earn almost the same as an English major in the 60th percentile: about $2.8 million.  A major in psychology earns $2.57 million and a history major $2.64 million.

Another tip, from Richard Pitt, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University: if you choose to double-major, consider selecting majors that are unrelated.  This “double-threat” makes a graduate more interesting, and increases breadth of knowledge. While it’s easier to schedule two related majors with overlapping requirements, demonstrating skills in different areas can yield bigger job market gains.

Liberal arts has come under fire lately, but a recent 2017 Harvard study showed the jobs requiring so called soft skills, such as writing, critical thinking and problem solving, have seen the largest growth in employment and pay over the last thirty years.  While sometimes the first job after graduation can be harder to find with a liberal arts degree, combining that with needed technical skills such as data analysis, can really help.

So, what should a student who knows they want a college education, but are still unsure about what to study, do?  Look for colleges who don’t pressure their students to declare their major until after a few semesters. For students who have a general idea of their interests, but aren’t ready to commit to a specific major, colleges like Georgia State or Arizona State University offer “meta-majors” — business, STEM, education, for example.  Students can complete general education courses within that meta-major, and decide later which specific field interests them.

Of course, changing majors or remaining undecided without any general idea of which field interests you can cost more in extra semesters and extra tuition.  At Monumental Beginnings, we encourage students to explore careers options in high school, either through high school classes in business, education, engineering or medical fields.  If dual-enrollment classes are an option, it’s a great way for students to “try on” college level courses in particular subjects. Summer opportunities such as unpaid internships, summer camps for specific career paths, or even finding a shadow opportunity with a professional for a few weeks can be eye-opening.  

Students and parents can benefit from discussions about certain careers.  Talking to adults who are in different careers is helpful: what did they major in, and how did they achieve that role?  Some paths are straightforward, and some are circuitous. It’s good for high school students to see that many paths or even different majors can potentially lead to similar careers.

One last tip: parents, avoid the high-pressure sales pitch.  It’s a leap of faith to send your student to college with an “undecided” major, but students who ultimately follow their passion will bloom in college and in life.