Choosing the Wrong Major Could Cost You

by Claire Gillen - Notre Dame on February 2, 2012

Is college worth the cost? The answer depends on which major you choose, according to a recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

In the current tough job market, a college degree still provides a critical advantage. Newly minted college grads face an unemployment rate of around 8.9 percent, while those with high school degrees only are facing a much higher rate of 22.9 percent.

However, not all college majors are equal. Choosing the wrong major can make you twice as likely to end up unemployed. Researchers found that the highest rates belong to recent graduates in architecture (13.9 percent), the arts (11.1 percent), and the social sciences (8.9 percent). The undergraduate degrees with the lowest rates of unemployment are health (5.4 percent), education (5.4 percent), and agriculture and natural resources (7 percent).

Likewise, median earnings vary according to the degree earned. Engineering majors earn a median salary of $55,000 per year, while arts, social, and psychology majors’ median earnings are $33,000.

Drawing on data from 2009 and 2010 data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, researchers Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, and Ban Cheah found that some majors with higher unemployment could be linked to careers within suffering industries. For example, the low demand for architecture majors corresponds to the recent collapse of the housing market.

Many Choose Easy Majors

George Leef, director of research for the Charlotte-based John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, dismissed the study as “much ado about nothing.”

“It only tells what virtually everyone knows already: that students who go in for serious college degrees like scientific fields and computer science are apt to do much better in the job market than those who choose soft, easy majors,” he said.

Leef argued that the federal government should stop subsidizing all student loans, “especially given the evidence that many students are actually learning very little.”

“Kids will continue going into math, science, and engineering…because they accumulate knowledge and skill that will serve them well and pay off in the job market,” Leef said. “Students shouldn’t be pied-pipered into attending college.”

Too many high school students attend college and just “coast through,” Leef said, due to the “wrong-headed” idea that “college is good for just about everyone.”

“The majority of high school students don’t want to do the work that goes along with college,” he said. “They just want the credential of a college degree, the key to a lot of employment opportunities. For employers, a degree is a screening device, a mechanism that allows them to judge that certain people are probably more trainable.”

Knowledge For Its Own Sake

When it comes to choosing a major, the relevance of a liberal arts education has increasingly been called into question as college tuition and the average levels of college debt have risen dramatically.

Mark Roche, Notre Dame professor German language and literature and of philosophy, recently wrote the award-winning book Why Choose the Liberal Arts? He claims that humanities majors provide the skills employers want.

“If you look at something like the annual publication Job Outlook, for 11 years running (this year is an exception), employers have been asked, What skills do you most want to see in a future employee?’ and answered, ‘Communication skills,’ said Roche. “[The book} Academically Adrift, for example, makes the case that college students are not learning as much as they should — that they’re spending too much time in group projects and so forth and not studying enough hours, reading enough pages, writing enough, or developing key skills. The capacities that you need in the long run — speaking, writing, critical thinking, research skills, breadth, language skills and experience with diversity, an eye for complexity, a passion for learning and the capacity to continue to learn — are all developed in liberal arts classes.”

Roche criticized the survey on methodological and theoretical grounds.

“The study completely brackets degrees beyond the B.A. A certain percentage of arts and letters majors, of course, will go to graduate school, to law school, and so on, and this percentage is exempted from the study,” he said. “Another problem is that the study is based on national data, and it’s very important to look at individual schools.” Roche pointed out that that at Notre Dame, the same percentage of both business and arts and letters graduates — a “very low” 2.8 percent — are still seeking employment.

Roche said the study bracketed the most important questions in favor of purely economic gain, which is “the trend of the age.” Emphasizing the unique nature of Catholic universities, he said, “The study ignores the intrinsic, moral, and vocational aspects of education… According to surveys, first-year students today want above all to ‘be very well off financially.’ Whereas a generation ago, ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ was the highest ambition of students entering college. When President Obama speaks of education, he speaks of education as serving practical economic ends.”

Fix Contributor Claire Gillen is a senoir at Notre Dame.

Help The College Fix thrive. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation!
Share this article: