6 Myths About Choosing a College Major

Last week I wrote about how my son switched his major from physics to computer science. It’s been a pleasure to watch him hit his stride as a student, and my husband and I feel hopeful that he’ll land a job when he graduates and earn a decent salary.

 

(Image: iStock/XiFotos)

 

But this interesting piece in last Sunday’s New York Times looks under the hood of certain truisms about college majors—and exposes six “myths” that may not be actually wrong, but a lot more nuanced than you might initially think.

The 6 Myths

 

  • A STEM major will ensure big earnings.
  • Women want to have it all.
  • Choice of major matters more than choice of college.
  • Liberal arts majors are unemployable.
  • It’s important to choose a major early.
  • You need a major.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Many colleges ask you to choose a major as early as your senior year of high school, on your admissions application. Yet there’s a good chance you’ll change your mind. The Education Department says that about 30% of students switch majors at least once.

Students get plenty of advice about picking a major. It turns out, though, that most of it is from family and friends, according to a September Gallup survey. Only 11% had sought guidance from a high school counselor, and 28% from a college adviser. And most didn’t think that the advice was especially helpful. Maybe it’s because much of the conventional thinking about majors is wrong.

Myth 1: For the big money, STEM always delivers.

It’s true that computer science and engineering top all the pay rankings, but salaries within specific majors vary greatly.

“Students and parents have a pretty good idea of what majors pay the most, but they have a poor sense of the magnitude of the differences within the major,” said Douglas A. Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University who studies earnings by academic field. He points to one example: The top quarter of earners who majored in English make more over their lifetimes than the bottom quarter of chemical engineers.

But what if you never make it to the top of the pay scale? Even English or history graduates who make just above the median lifetime earnings for their major do pretty well when compared to typical graduates in business or a STEM field.

Take the median lifetime earnings of business majors, the most popular undergraduate degree. The typical graduate earns $2.86 million over a lifetime. When you put business graduates side by side with those who graduated with what are considered low-paying majors, you’ll see that those who are slightly above the median salary in their fields are not that far behind the business grads. For example, an English major in the 60th percentile makes $2.76 million in a lifetime, a major in psychology $2.57 million, and a history major $2.64 million.

For more, read the Times.