Six Myths about Choosing a College Major

Jeff Selingo, author of There Is Life After College, recently wrote an article in The New York Times that explored six myths surrounding the choice of what to major in college, suggesting that much of the conventional thinking about majors is wrong.

Here are the six myths, with some details that I found interesting:

  • For the big money, STEM always delivers.

Here’s an interesting graphic comparing the lifetime earnings of a variety of majors; in many cases the difference is not as much as what many would expect.

  • Women want to have it all.

When it comes to selecting a major, what women choose tends to segregate them into lower paying fields, such as education and social services. If the proportion of women in fields where men dominate increased by just 10 percent, the gender pay gap would narrow considerably: from 78 cents paid to women for every dollar men receive to 90 cents for every dollar men receive.

  • Choice of major matters more than choice of college.

More than half of students at less selective schools major in career-focused subjects; at elite schools, less than a quarter do. Yet data shows that students who graduate from more selective schools tend to make more money. Students at elite colleges are also more likely to have two majors than students at second-tier colleges.

But there is a caveat, and it is a point I try to impress upon my students: While complementary majors with overlapping requirements are easier to juggle, two unrelated majors probably yield bigger gains in the job market. I always suggest to my students that if they want to have a second major, to choose something outside of the business school. Unfortunately, most students pay no attention; we have a large number of students with two majors, but both majors are within the business school

  • Liberal arts majors are unemployable.

The competencies that liberal arts majors emphasize — writing, synthesis, problem solving — are sought after by employers. A 2017 study by David J. Deming, an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard, found jobs requiring both the so-called soft skills and thinking skills have seen the largest growth in employment and pay in the last three decades.

While liberal arts students may have more difficulty landing their first job, if liberal arts graduates gain proficiency in one of eight technical skills, such as social media or data analysis, their prospects of landing entry-level jobs increase substantially.

  • It’s important to choose a major early.
  • You need a major.

“Majors are artificial and restrictive,” said Christine Ortiz, a dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on leave to design a new nonprofit university that will have no majors, and also no lectures or classrooms.

Majors tend to lag behind changes in the workplace. No wonder fewer than a third of college graduates work in jobs related to their majors. And picking one based on today’s in-demand jobs is risky, said Dr. Webber of Temple, especially if the occupation is threatened by automation.

I agree with virtually everything in the article. I would also add that I think it’s important to major in a field that you are passionate about, or at least find interesting, and not base such a decision primarily on what the job opportunities are immediately at graduation.

Plus it’s important to get the message out that what a student majors in does not determine what their career path will be.

So why not major in something that you find interesting, enjoyable, and challenging. Doing so will make for a much better college experience, and likely lead to a more interesting, enjoyable, and challenging career.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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