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Why Earning Potential Shouldn’t Drive the College Major Decision

Posted in Higher Education

Why Earning Potential Shouldn’t Drive the College Major Decision

In high school, students may take an occasional elective course in macroeconomics or anthropology, but graduation requirements make it tough to venture outside of the core curriculum: English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language.

When students move on to college, it’s no wonder, then, that an estimated 80 percent arrive undecided about their major, and 50 percent switch majors that first year. Of those who do declare before arriving on campus, many pick a college major with little insight on today’s ever-growing options, reaching as high as 350 degree programs at some universities (University of California at Berkeley) and hovering around 250 at others (Syracuse University and University of Ohio).

With limited exposure to the working world of the 21st century and experience spanning mostly the core curriculum, how can students weigh the pros and cons of so many options?

A number of things can help, and keep students (and their parents) on the calm side of the anxiety-ridden task of declaring a major.

Know that money isn’t everything 

With rising tuitions and a wavering economy, many students enter college with a goal to make up for the hefty price tag on the receiving end—and land a high paying job. Consider this year’s top earning college major: petroleum engineering. Not all of us are cut out for petroleum engineering, despite how welcome a salary of $93,500 would feel straight out of college.

While comparative rankings of earning potential (by major) abound on the Internet, a closer look suggests these numbers might not hold value. Daniel Hamermesh, a labor markets expert and economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, ran the numbers—and learned this from his analysis: “Perceptions of the variations in economic success among graduates in different majors are exaggerated. Our results imply that given a student’s ability, achievement and effort, his or her earnings do not vary all that greatly with the choice of undergraduate major.”

The fact of the matter is, while career possibilities are important (and discussed a few paragraphs down), most studies suggest it’s what students do with what they learn in college matters more than the actual major. Take English majors, for example. They fall among the bottom earning potential. Yet plenty of successful people studied English in college—and work in fields as diverse as technology, government, business, journalism, medicine, and education. Some, such as Harold Varmus, are even Nobel laureates in medicine.

So remember: just because a major ranks high on a potential earnings list, actual earnings depend more on the person than the degree.

Let interests lead the way 

If choosing a major based on earnings is ill advised, then what should students consider? Many studies point to individual interests and personality. According to Lawrence K. Jones, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, research over the past 10 years indicates that choosing a major based on interests and personality leads to key advantages, including the likelihood of students:

  • Earning higher graders
  • Sticking with the major
  • Graduating on time
  • Ending up more satisfied and successful in a career

Jones sums up his advice like this:

Generally, the better you fit with the people, culture, and demands of your major and its environment, the more interested in it you will be; the more time and effort you will put into it; the more confidence you will feel; the better grades you will get; and the better recommendations you will receive from your teachers.

How can students find that right fit? In earlier posts, we’ve discussed the reality that few students start college with a strong sense of self. Most need time and guidance to figure it all out. What helps? On top of advising and career counseling, personality assessments open a window into students’ preferences and personalities—and help immensely when paired with college majors. But Jones warns of the need to be selective: “Most career measures on the Internet are not valid, including those that are top hits in Google. These pseudo measures—quizzes, profilers, sorters, and the like—can actually harm you.”

Only trust those that are scientifically valid, he advises.

Consider career possibilities but broaden your terms of success 

Interest level may be a better gauge of a well-matched major than earning potential, but career possibilities still matter. With less than half of recent graduates in good jobs, on top of unprecedented college debt, students need to look closely at the job market—not only when they pick a major but also throughout their college career.

The career landscape is ever changing in the 21st century, and jobs here today may vanish in five years. Why? In part, it’s due to technology. Yet other more intrinsic, less obvious variables contribute, too, especially shifting ideas about success.

“Previously, career development and the definition of career success involved “climbing the ladder,” explains Peter Allen Johnson, a technologist and Ph.D. candidate in management at Macquarie University (Australia). “This has shifted to add factors such as inner satisfaction, life balance, autonomy, and freedom,” instead of only “the traditional factors of income, rank, and status.”

What does this mean for students? According to Johnson, it means career success has moved “from organizations back to individuals,” putting more onus on each student to define success for themselves—and carve a path to achieve it.

Put differently, this means that no one major leads to one career. Majors are certainly gateways to careers—and a big deal—but ultimately, it’s up to the individual.

For help connecting students to the majors that match their personalities, discover Woofound Compass, an image-based personality assessment that has offered personalized suggestions for careers and majors to thousands of students nationwide.

Tags: students personality assessments college major

Hal Ashman is Chief Business Development Officer at Woofound, where he focuses on building partnerships with institutions of higher education in order to accelerate student academic and career success.
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