Admissions

Evaluating Possible College Majors

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We’ve discussed college majors here before. Choosing a major is a major decision, so to speak. You’re going to be investing a lot of time and money across the years of your undergraduate degree program, and your area of concentration will have long-reaching effects, both in job possibilities and graduate study, should you choose to extend your education.

A while back, I was watching a women’s gymnastics meet on the Big Ten Network. They always do a good job of providing background information about the athletes. One thing that really surprised me was the number of gymnasts who had no specifically-declared major in their profiles. The phrases “Undeclared Major” and “Major Pending” appeared more than several times on the screen as the participants from the three Big Ten schools prepared to execute their routines. This got me to thinking.


I recalled my own transition from high school to college. In high school, I fancied myself a reasonably decent writer but back in those dim (for me) days of higher education, there were no fancy majors that focused on developing specialized kinds of writing skills, like there are today. I could have studied journalism but that was a bit “dry,” as I explained it to anyone who was inquiring about what I wanted to study in college.

There were so-called “creative writing” courses, but nothing more elaborate than that. Thus, any creative writing concentration I sought was available only as a mere elective. Consequently, I made a “default” decision and chose Business Administration as my major, which, back in those plain-vanilla practical days, got approving nods from my friends’ parents and my older relatives.

“Solid choice, Dave! You’ll always be able to find a job with a degree in business.” I heard a number of variations on that theme during Thanksgiving break. One problem, though: I hated my introductory business courses, especially accounting. Even now, I cringe at the memory of my first all-nighter, trying to get my balance sheets to balance as I raced to complete that particularly nasty end-of-semester project. Clearly, I wasn’t a numbers guy. I was a word guy trapped by my circumstances, which led to a bad-fit major.

So, for those of you high school seniors who have already -- or will soon be -- receiving your college admission decisions, a quick but important question: How do you know that the major you have chosen is the right one for you and will benefit your post-college life? Oh, and a follow-up question: If you haven’t yet selected a major, what kind of information can help you make a good decision?

Explore These Majors

Some students are certain about what they want to do after earning their degrees. Others have no idea what they want to study or what kind of job they might want after graduating. The majority of students, however, fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The uncertainty that so many college students possess is often a barrier that makes it difficult for them to declare a college major. While there’s certainly no law against changing your major once you’ve declared one -- and a surprising number do make a change -- it pays to do some pre-declaration research before diving into a particular area of study.

That’s why I was interested in the information I received just yesterday about college majors. My friends at Zippia.com, a cool site that publishes all kinds of interesting studies, sent me their latest opus, headlined in all caps: AN INTERACTIVE EXPLORATION OF BULLS**T MAJORS -- Which college majors are a total waste of time and effort? 

I have censored the key adjective in that all-caps title out of respect for my readers, but I’m sure that you get it. In fact, I wrote back to co-author Chris Kolmar and told him that I might have titled their study: “Get A B.S. in BS.” He wrote back: “OH MAN, why didn't I use that?!” More all caps!

Anyway, here’s how the “exploration” begins (censored for your comfort):

We all know bulls**t majors exists.

For example -- History.

Sorry, not sorry, History majors.

I should say I know the anxiety of having a potentially bulls**t major seeing as how I majored in English. So imagine my delight and validation when I discovered that English is not one of them.

And this isn't based on anecdotes from my fellow English majors or my own gut feeling -- we have the data that shows English isn't a bulls**t major.

However, there are definitely a good number of majors that are absolute bulls**t.

Let me walk you through it:

What follows are multiple charts and supporting data that can be a significant help to you, as a college-bound senior, as you step on campus for the first time. The topics covered include:

- Avg. Income for 30-somethings (29-31)

- Avg. Income For 30 Somethings By Education

- Avg. Income For 30 Somethings By Major

- Lowest Paying Majors

- Lowest Paying Majors + Debt 

- Bulls**t Majors Appear

You may be wondering what constitutes [that word again] majors. Here’s how co-author Chris sees them

Defining Bulls**t Majors

So here's what we learned.

Bulls**t majors don't increase your likelihood of making a good living compared to fewer years of education.

Don't waste your time and money on bulls**t majors. Unless of course you really love the subject (and/or have a giant trust fund waiting for you) and care very little about how you plan to use the degree in real life.

Finally, there are some majors that stand out as absolute bulls**t majors --- where the unemployment numbers in those cases are also worse than people with just HS diplomas. Combining unemployment and low earnings arrives at the s**tiest of the bulls**t majors

… which are [drumroll, please] …

United States History and Educational Psychology

According to the methodology of Chris and his co-author Kavita Pillai (spelled out in detail at the end of the article), these two majors win the grand prize for lowest on-the-job pay and highest unemployment.

Rational logic -- and common sense -- dictate that there’s nothing to prevent someone who graduates with a degree in US History or Ed Psych from achieving great success and happiness in life. After all, there are college-dropout billionaires!

However, based on the evaluation criteria used in this study, certain trends emerge that are worth considering. Thus, for what it’s worth, I think your time would be wisely spent reviewing the information presented here, if you’re heading to college this fall and have yet to figure out a direction to go.

Many of the majors mentioned in this review fall under the broad umbrella of “liberal arts.” I’m a defender of the liberal arts but the pendulum these days is swinging strongly in the direction of pre-professionalism and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees. As I mentioned, it’s completely possible to be successful and happy with a career launched by any of the degrees mentioned in this study.

I was a liberal arts major at Penn State University, graduating from the College of Arts and Architecture. Although my major was Music History and Literature, there were lots of other liberal arts courses enhancing my music-specific classes. I credit these courses for stretching my understanding of the world around me.

Today, many students (and especially their parents) are strongly focused on degrees that instill hands-on skills. They want to take the most practical route from high school to a job that pays well and offers hope for a lifetime career. However, allow me to once again say a good word for the liberal arts.

I often wonder how much less rich my life would have been without the benefit of the liberal arts courses that were required of me and are required as part of the liberal arts and other majors mentioned above. Some may view studying the archeology of South-Central America to be completely irrelevant. However, you never know what oblique connection knowledge from a course like that may have to something important to you later in your life.

Imagine being at a party with your new boss and someone comments on the popcorn put out by the host. With great confidence, you hold up one of the popped kernels and say, “Did you know that some of the oldest known corn cobs, husks, stalks and tassels dating from 6,700 to 3,000 years ago were found at Paredones and Huaca Prieta, two mound sites on Peru’s arid northern coast? Popcorn has been around for almost 7,000 years!” You’ll be the instant life of the party … all due to your comprehensive liberal arts knowledge!

Bottom line, then, from my perspective: Use as many sources of information as possible, such as the “exploration” above, to evaluate the pluses and minuses of particular college majors. Then, check your heart for what I call your “passion index.” What do you really want to do at this stage of your life? Where are your interests pointing? These are valuable indicators that should not be ignored.

If you have no sense of your passions or interests, then be pragmatic and go for a major that can, according to all available data, deliver the best possible chance for employment and income. At least Chris and Kavita’s study will show you where that is likely not to happen!