Does The College Major Matter? Definitely, But . . .


By Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D.

Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness


Many years ago a friend told me that her dad agreed to pay her college costs only as long as the major she chose would lead to being something. By being something, he apparently meant choosing a degree that was clearly aligned with a profession such as a nurse, an accountant, or a chemist. He wanted no uncertainties in college outcomes, and in the short term, at least, he got it. His three daughters became a teacher, a nutritionist, and a pharmacist.

Lots of people have strong opinions about what one should study in postsecondary, and students feel pressure to choose the “best” degree. YouTube is crammed with videos that tell students what to study and why, and a Google search of “What is the best college major?” turns up an enormous number of results. Currently, the basic arguments tend to break down into these two camps:

  • STEM majors—regardless of type—are the best because they tend to pay a good salary and there is plenty of job growth in this area.
  • Arts, humanities, and liberal arts majors might be interesting but those earning them risk ending up serving coffee at Starbucks or working part-time in retail.

If you want to game out these arguments, at your next family or social gathering watch others’ reactions when you mention that your son/daughter/niece/nephew/neighbor kid wants to study philosophy or computer science. You probably already know how this would go. Rebecca Koenig at U.S. News and World Report suggests that “jokes about ‘useless’ liberal arts degrees are rooted in misconceptions about what employers are looking for” and as it turns out, there is evidence of renewed interest and value attached to skills often associated with the liberal arts. 

Indeed, The National Association of Colleges and Employers has found that the eight competencies employers consider essential include:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Professionalism and work ethic
  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Digital technology
  • Career management
  • Multicultural fluency

Here is what an expert at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce says about college majors: They matter. Why?

  • There really is a big difference in what different majors can earn for students. Science, engineering, and business degree holders can earn as much as $3 million more in a lifetime.
  • Not all other degree holders will earn less, however. A lot of how much one earns is determined in the real world of work. For example, history majors in the top 25% of earnings can make more than the average business major.
  • Certain degree holders, such as those who earned a B.A. in education and psychology would be well-advised to go to graduate school in order to make a middle class living.
  • What really matters is the interests students have and what their values are. Those who do not pursue their interests and values are not likely to thrive in school or work.
  • The key is to balance one’s interests and values with earnings, especially knowing that many students will have to pay off college debt.

College students should absolutely choose their major carefully, after deep reflection of what matters to them, but should also know that their degree choice is not always their destiny. Take Chaim Bloom, for example, who was recently hired as the Chief Baseball Officer with the Boston Red Sox. His major in college? Latin Classics.


About the Author

Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D., is the Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness at the University of Minnesota, and is thoroughly committed to college for all. Her additional professional interests include high quality instruction, professional learning systems, and labor trends. She is also a licensed social studies teacher, and has worked in K-12 settings, leading efforts in curriculum and instruction, mentoring/coaching, alternative compensation, and postsecondary readiness.

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