The College Major Dilemma

A new study by Yale economists shows in numbers what we’ve always intuitively known: “Practical” majors like Finance, Engineering, and Nursing have a huge wage advantage over “impractical” ones like Art History, Drama, and Philosophy:

During a recession, a Finance major, for example, earns 32% more than the average college graduate one year after graduation.  A Religion and Philosophy major earns 55% less than the average graduate (which means the consolation of philosophy comes in handy).  In concrete terms, if the average college grad earns $45,000/year after college, the average Finance major would be making just under $60K, while the average Religion and Philosophy major would be making a smidge above $20K.  For reference, the median American makes $27,000 per year.  So your college major can represent the difference between being poor, and making over double that of the average American–and that’s just after one year.

Yet I feel uneasy simply advising students to ditch their majors and start learning to code.

For one thing, not everyone is suited for every major.  Back at Stanford, we actually had three physics tracks–advanced (for masochists), standard (for engineers–bear in mind that this was still pretty hard…the median on one of the Physics 53 midterms I tool was 17 out of 100.  That was the only time in my college career that I got a 70%, yet ended up with an A+), and “Physics for Poets.”

I also remember taking Chemistry (the feeder class for being pre-med) and watching as vast numbers of former valedictorians abandoned their hopes of being a doctor after washing out.

For another thing, simply considering earning power doesn’t properly measure contributions to society.  Bankers and lawyers make money, but do they make a difference?  Meanwhile, Education and Social Work majors help people directly.

In the end, I feel like the proper resolution to the college major dilemma is to make sure that students are able to make informed choices.  Simply knowing that majoring in Computer Science is likely to lead to a good career is useful (and obvious), but knowing the exact magnitude of the expected gains or losses from possible majors allows better decision-making.

If Jason or Marissa really wanted to major in Philosophy and Religion, I’d support their decision…and clear out a basement apartment for them to stay in after graduating.

My own solution to this dilemma–in the absence of real statistics–was to hedge.  I majored in both Engineering (Product Design) and Creative Writing.  This was a conscious strategy, one which my Creative Writing advisor, the great John L’Heureux agreed with.  “I’m glad that at least one of my students will actually be able to get a job,” he told me.  “Just remember to come back and endow a professorship in our department someday.”

The irony, of course, is that having a Creative Writing degree AND an Engineering degree has been great for my career. My first boss told me that my writing skills were one of the key reasons D. E. Shaw hired me (and disgorged quadruple the usual signing bonus for a non-CS major), and I’ve been the chief author of every organization I’ve been a part of ever since.

(Speaking of which, don’t forget to pre-order my upcoming book, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked AgePublisher’s Weekly writes, “The specifics on helping employees network and aligning employee and
company goals and values will help all employers create an engaged and
self-actualized workforce.”)

What makes this strategy work is the scarcity of people who are trained as both engineers and writers.  Rather than competing with a sea of English majors, my Creative Writing degree helped me stand out from all the other Engineering majors.

2 thoughts on “The College Major Dilemma

  1. My advice to kids nowadays is Mind your Debt. If you want to major in a liberal arts field, go ahead, but don't run up debt while doing so.

    There are numerous ways to minimize debt, even if you come from rather modest origins (ie, not born to Silicon Valley double-nerd-income families):

    o Go to community college for two years. Sure, you'll miss parts of the "college experience" (saving money on beer), but you'll also miss ginormous survey courses and two years of debt.

    o Have jobs while in school.

    o Join the military and take advantage of military college programs.

    o Beware of trying to keep up with your rich classmates. Don't go on random ski trips and Spring Break beer bashes. Have a good time, but don't feel pressured into an expensive lifestyle that you can't afford. (This is one of the silent financial killers in college.)

    o If you have to major in anything ending in "studies" or art/theater/whatever, especially watch the debt. You may save the world, but you won't get rich doing it. Poverty sux, and having debt + low income sux even more.

    That said, avoiding debt is useful even if you major in something more financially rewarding.

  2. Anonymous

    What are you thoughts on the Thiel Fellowship? I haven't heard of any major successes from the Thiel fellows since 2011 except that a few of them have raised substantial funding for their startups.

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