Do college majors matter?

The news this week was enough to make a parent – well, me at least – cringe. The Associated Press reported that more than half of college-educated young adults (defined as people under 25 with bachelors’ degrees) are unemployed or underemployed. Looking more closely, it was very clear that college majors matter significantly. Grads with degrees in nursing, teaching, computer science and accounting were among the most likely to get work commensurate with their education. Those with zoology, philosophy, art history and humanities degrees? They’re more likely to be the ones asking if you want your Venti Au Lait with 2%, Skim or Soy.

My first-born is heading off to college in the fall. Am I to take from this that if he doesn’t pick a course of study focused in the so-called STEM (that would be science, technology, engineering and mathematics) world, that he’ll be out of luck when he receives his diploma in 2016? Is it now my job to nudge him – like some rogue behavioral economist – into one of these fields when his true passion might be Shakespeare or music?

The Associated Press reported that more than half of college-educated young adults are unemployed or underemployed. Looking more closely, it was very clear that college majors matter significantly.And what of the additional finding – also reported by the AP – that according to government data, only three of the 30 occupations that are expected to have the largest number of job openings by 2020 will even require a bachelor’s degree. What’s a parent to do with that can of worms? Stop encouraging our kids to go to college at all?

Of course not. Despite this blip, history continues to show that – on average – PhDs earn more than holders of master’s degrees who earn more than those people with bachelors, who earn more than folks who just attended “some college,” who earn more than high school grads, who earn more than – whew – people who didn’t graduate from high school at all. Education continues to pay. As for those majors, I will pass along the advice my college counselors passed onto me: If you’re going strictly liberal arts (as I did, with my major in English) load up your resume with internships and summer jobs in the fields in which you might like to work.

I figured out fairly early that I wanted to work in journalism. So, the summer after freshman year, I worked at the Martin’s Ferry Times Leader, a small town paper near my home. After sophomore year, it was Rodale Press in Emmaus, PA. I didn’t make it to New York until after my junior year, when I landed an internship at Advertising Age. I had a real (i.e. not padded) resume when I got out and I got a job, despite the fact that the market – like now – wasn’t chugging nicely along. And today, I find myself hiring kids who’ve done the same.

The point? We no longer live in an environment where a liberal arts major is an acceptable cover for four years of indecision over what you want to do with your life. College has become too expensive for that. And the market for employment has become too competitive. No matter what field you’re trying to enter, you’re going to be up against kids with several internships on their resume because they’ve been focused in that direction.

So, here’s the advice I’ll be giving to my son. The first year or so, it’s okay to take an array of classes to get a feel for what you might like. By the end of sophomore summer, you should have an idea so that you can look for some real-world experience in the field. If you still don’t know, well, it’s time to take a gap year – take the tuition pressure off your family – and do your best to figure it out. Then get yourself back in school and on a track, any track, to do something. It doesn’t have to be the thing that will earn you a living forever. But it does have to earn you a living for now.

Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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2 Responses to Do college majors matter?

  1. Anonymous says:

    These days, a two-year degree
    from a community college might
    be necessary to assure the knowledge base and skills that
    used to be represented in a high school education. Once that level is achieved, and with a GPA that is indicative of a likelihood of continued success, then the four-year degree ought to be pursued.

  2. Anonymous WFE says:

    A college education should be used as a stepping stone to identify whether or not further education, e.g. graduate school, is desired by the student. Much like what you stated, those who have achieved degrees earn more than those who haven’t, so it seems as though having ANY four year degree is better than the alternative.

    It should be a parent’s responsibility to relay to their child(ren) how significant having a degree is. They should be supportive and yet firm in their kin’s journey into academia. Merely taking a “gap year” should never be put on the table; it is not only a jinx in the eyes of the student, but it leaves them feeling that abandoning their college degree is an acceptable option.

    The job market is extremely brutal as of late, but this is not an excuse to neglect one’s acquisition of knowledge. The last thing our country needs is a slew of undereducated citizens. We all will succumb to debt at one time or another, but if I were asked what was more desirable, compensation or the ability to be an independent thinker, I would choose the latter. Every time.

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