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Does the College Major You Choose Affect Your Career Potential?


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Skyrocketing college tuition has students taking on debt to pay for college. As a result, many high school graduates and their parents question whether college is even worth it. The answer depends in part on whether your future job pays off the degree’s cost

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that those with college degrees significantly outearn those without, regardless of their major. But there are some specific ways your area of study can affect your future earning potential.

Why Your College Major Might Matter

According to a 2019 PayScale survey of the biggest college regrets, graduates’ choice of major was No. 2, right after taking on too much student loan debt. So it’s clear many grads believe their choice of college major influenced their career opportunities.

And there’s certainly plenty of evidence to back up the idea that your major can affect whether your degree is worth it. Various studies show a wide disparity in lifetime earning potential and life satisfaction between those with certain majors.

1. Some Degrees Have Lower Lifetime Earnings

A 2015 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that college graduates earn an average of $1 million more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma. 

But not all degree-holders make anywhere near that amount. And the disparity in income potential between degrees can be even greater than that between having a degree or not — as much as $3.4 million or more.

More recently, a 2021 report by public policy group Third Way analyzed data collected for the federal Education Department’s College Scorecard tool and measured the payoff of tens of thousands of certificate programs, associate degrees, and undergraduate majors. 

Third Way found that most bachelor’s degree programs paid off within 10 years or less. But some degrees never paid off. Grads with these majors are least likely to earn more than the average worker with only a high school diploma. They include:

  • Drama
  • Dance
  • Film and studio arts
  • Visual arts
  • Video arts
  • Music
  • Zoology
  • Ecology
  • Anthropology
  • Religious studies

Although the earnings value of these degrees isn’t wonderful, none of them are negative. 

And even Third Way found that among these degree-granting programs, college grads usually outearned high school graduates in all majors but three: drama, dance, and zoology. 

Data from the Brookings Institute comes to a similar conclusion. Of the 98 majors it studied, the only two career fields that didn’t outearn high school diploma-holders were early childhood education and visual and performing arts, but only at the end-of-career mark.

If you’re attached to one of these career fields, you can increase its payoff by attending a lower-cost school and keeping student loan debt to a minimum.

2. Some Degrees Can Lead to More Lucrative Careers

On the other end of the spectrum, Third Way found many majors pay off their investment in less than five years. They tend to include STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and health care fields. 

These areas of study pay for themselves quickly and tend to lead to highly lucrative incomes and, thus, a higher-end lifestyle. 

And this finding holds across research studies made by all organizations, including the Georgetown education center study and Brookings Institute study.  

Third Way discovered these degrees pay off quickly 100% of the time:

  • Petroleum engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Industrial engineering
  • Engineering (general)
  • Engineering technology
  • Construction engineering technologies
  • Quality control and safety technicians 
  • Dental support services 
  • Registered nursing 

3. Graduates of Some Degrees Are More Employable Than Others

A high starting salary isn’t the only consideration when it comes to your choice of major. Majoring in some degrees could make you more employable than others. 

For example, LinkedIn data show the top in-demand jobs for 2021 require at least a bachelor’s degree. But many of them also require specific majors because they’re the types of jobs that require a specific skill set. In other words, just anyone with any degree can’t typically perform them. 

Jobs listed by LinkedIn, like psychotherapist, registered nurse, and elementary school teacher, all require specific majors. For example, you can’t become a nurse without a nursing degree. 

You might be able to learn the technical skills needed for some of the other in-demand jobs, like being a Web developer, without having a degree in computer science. But majoring in computer programming or taking coursework in Web development will likely make your job search easier.

But specializing in one area could also backfire. ZipRecruiter warns average earning projections or even the current in-demand jobs shouldn’t be the only consideration when choosing a major. 

Many occupations may disappear before you graduate or soon after due to technological, cultural, and political changes. They can even disappear or lose demand because of society-changing global events like the coronavirus pandemic.  

Additionally, jobs may change in value as external factors change. 

For example, due to changes in how Americans consume their news, traditional newsroom job availability has decreased rapidly in the last decade. And digital-native job growth isn’t increasing fast enough to compensate, according to the Pew Research Center

To decrease the risk of this happening to you, you can hedge your bets and double major. Double majoring could make you a more attractive job candidate even if your chosen degree field remains in high demand.

For example, if you plan to major in journalism, a secondary major in finance allows you to specialize in finance journalism, work in digital content (such as blog content, newsletters, social media, and podcasts) for a financial services firm, or transition to a financial services job.  

According to a 2018 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, 82% of surveyed employers want candidates with excellent written communication skills. Other top desired skills include teamwork, problem-solving, and oral communication skills.

These interpersonal skills make you promotable and could help you score a future management position, thereby increasing your career potential and giving you a backup degree to lean on if your desired field dries up.    

4. Many Graduates Report Regret Over Their Choice of Major

The PayScale survey isn’t the only one that found the choice of college major is a top regret of college grads. A 2020 Best Colleges survey found nearly two-thirds of surveyed grads regretted their choice. 

Some of those people indicated they wish they’d pursued a passion instead. But unsurprisingly, 30% would change their majors for better job opportunities. 

Money is certainly a factor when choosing a major. After all, the PayScale survey found the most regretted majors are the ones with the least earning potential. And that can compound financial issues related to high student loan debt.

A 2019 Insider and Morning Consult survey found nearly half of millennials who are still paying off student loan debt feel college wasn’t worth it. A major that leads to a well-paying career could enable people to pay off student debt quickly, making college feel more like money well spent. 

But a high income isn’t everything. A 2021 ZipRecruiter survey found that after accounting for job satisfaction, stress level, and opportunities, the most regretted majors include high-paying science majors as well as low-paying arts majors.       

Moreover, PayScale’s annual college salary report found some of the most meaningful majors, such as education and social services majors, aren’t necessarily the highest paying. But most of the highest-paying majors don’t rank the highest in meaning.

So when contemplating your major, it’s crucial to balance monetary considerations alongside the potential for job stress and careers with a sense of purpose.

Why Your College Major Might Not Matter

Looking at the research, it would seem your choice of major impacts your overall career success. But that assumes specific majors always lead to specific careers, which isn’t the case.

Aside from preprofessional majors, such as nursing, college degrees aren’t necessarily a direct pathway to a career. In a 2014 paper, data analysts from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that only 27% of college graduates work in the same career field as their major.

Plus, plenty of factors beyond your major influence your career trajectory and lifetime earning potential. 

1. The Job Market Is Constantly Shifting

According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering elementary school today will work in jobs that don’t yet exist. Thus, it’s likely today’s college students will find themselves employed in jobs they never imagined. 

That makes it nearly impossible to choose the “right” major to match your future career.

Temple University associate professor of economics Dr. Douglas A. Webber tells The New York Times picking a major based on today’s in-demand jobs is risky. These jobs may not exist in the future thanks to technological innovations such as automation.

It’s just one of the many reasons adaptability routinely shows up on LinkedIn’s annual top in-demand soft skills list

2. Modern Jobs Require a Mix of Skills

Another reason skills may matter more than majors is because jobs in emerging fields tend to cross disciplines. Thus, if you pigeonhole yourself in one area of study, you may not develop the skills employers are looking for. 

For example, it’s not uncommon for well-meaning parents and advisors to push students into STEM majors, hoping it will prepare them for a career in the lucrative tech field. 

But a 2015 LinkedIn study found that tech companies are hiring liberal arts grads at faster rates than those with computer-science and engineering degrees. That’s likely because tech companies need software developers who can humanize technology for everyone else.

That’s why job search platforms like ZipRecruiter advocate focusing on skills over majors. And no matter what you study, a broad education can help you hone numerous skills. These include soft skills like adaptability, flexibility, problem-solving, and effective communication.

George Anders, author of “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education,” claims that today’s jobs require a mix of skills you can’t learn from one major alone. He and others also argue a broad education, like the kind you get from a liberal arts degree, is the best way to prepare for an ever-changing job market.

Whatever your major, gaining skills in other fields can boost your career prospects. A 2013 study by job trend analysis company Burning Glass Technologies found that when liberal arts grads became proficient in specific technical skills, such as data analysis or computer programming, their chances of finding a job after graduation nearly doubled.

It stands to reason that the opposite is also true. For example, computer programmers who develop soft skills, especially interpersonal relations, communication, and teamwork, could be more likely to excel in their careers. 

3. Many Employers Don’t Care What You Studied

A 2021 Association of American Colleges & Universities survey found 4 out 5 employers surveyed would be more likely to hire a job candidate who had completed an internship or applied experience in college, including work-study experiences, portfolios, mentorships, or study abroad. These were all considered more important than the choice of major. 

Employers also heavily weigh applied experiences that expose students to people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. And when it came to academics, employers gave slightly more weight to engaging in varied coursework and topics than focusing on something like STEM fields.

What many students fail to realize is how much flexibility exists in the job market. For example, some believe English majors lack significant career prospects. But there are plenty of career paths for English majors beyond teaching or writing. 

Effective communication skills, such as the ability to listen to, understand, and communicate perspectives, are useful in plenty of industries. It isn’t unheard of for English majors to become CEOs, for instance.

4. Stats on High-Earning Majors Don’t Account for Career Variances

Many parents and students have an idea which majors earn the most, but they don’t understand the vast differences within them.

For example, The New York Times reports that the typical business graduate earns $2.86 million over their lifetime. A middle-of-the-pack English major doesn’t do much worse at $2.76 million.

The Hamilton Project, a comprehensive study of earnings by major, has found similar results, noting that the difference in earning potential between majors isn’t as significant as we believe. The greater disparity is among earners within the degrees themselves.

That’s because students who graduate with the same degree can go on to a wide variety of careers. By way of example, the Hamilton project notes that 1.2% of philosophy majors enter the corporate sector and become management analysts earning $72,000 per year. Meanwhile, 8% of philosophy majors become teachers earning $51,000 per year.   

This variance in career choice makes it challenging to link specific majors with specific earning outcomes, even though you can make general observations.

To give an idea of the different career paths and potential earnings grads have achieved with their majors, the Hamilton Project provides an interactive tool that allows users to view common occupations for various majors, including potential earnings at different career stages. It’s worth playing around with the tool to see what’s possible.

Final Word

Ultimately, your choice of major likely does matter. It just may not matter for the reasons you think. 

Surveys of college grads tend to show a significant proportion regret their choice. But there’s no need for that regret to be about your future career prospects since most hiring managers tend to emphasize experience and skills over college majors. 

The likely reason so many degrees earn reputations as leading to poor-paying jobs is because grads simply don’t know how to transition from college into the real-world workplace. And that’s where higher education has plenty of room for improvement. 

The worst offenders are humanities degrees, such as art history and gender studies. They provide plenty of opportunities to develop high-demand soft skills like creativity, analysis, critical thinking, writing, persuasion, collaboration, and problem-solving. 

Graduates could put these skills to work in plenty of lucrative careers. Yet many schools aren’t effective at communicating their career prospects to humanities grads, which is likely why humanities degrees are the most regretted majors on PayScale’s survey.    

Until colleges get better at transitioning students from education to career, the best way to avoid regret may be to cast your net as wide as possible. Either double major or aim for a broad education, such as a liberal arts degree. That ensures you get exposure to a range of academic disciplines and not just your core field of study, which helps keep your job prospects open. 


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Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.