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Students At Most Colleges Don’t Pick ‘Useless’ Majors

Growing up in a low-income household in Clifton, New Jersey, Vini Mehta saw one path to a better future: a college degree. Knowing that she would have to pay tuition herself, she chose the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a public university that was affordable and close enough to home that she could live with her parents during part of her time in school. She was equally practical when it came to picking a major: She studied electrical and computer engineering technology, a field that she knew offered a high starting salary.

Mehta’s college experience wasn’t easy. She took six years to earn a degree, working one and sometimes two part-time jobs while taking classes. But the hard work paid off. She graduated in May and quickly landed a job as a programming analyst at UPS, making around $72,000 a year.

Ian Speers also graduated from college this spring, but he took a very different path to get there. Growing up in an affluent family in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Speers was encouraged by his parents to see his time as an undergraduate as a chance to explore his passions and interests. He went to Dartmouth, an elite private college that he chose because of its supportive faculty, scenic environment and student body that represented a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. He double-majored in social and cultural anthropology and psychology — a decision that was likewise not driven by financial factors. Speers is now working at a global health and disaster response nonprofit group based in Connecticut and plans to attend graduate school after gaining some work experience.

The vastly different college paths that Mehta and Speers took illustrate an obvious point that is nonetheless often overlooked in discussions of higher education: Students attend college for different reasons. Some, like Mehta, see college primarily as a financial decision, an investment that they hope will have a relatively short-term payoff. Others, like Speers, may hope that a degree will bring financial rewards, but their focus is more on the intellectual and social aspects of the college experience. (Others, of course, seek both.) Those different goals affect where students go to college and what they do once they get there.

These varied approaches to college are clear from the fields that students at different colleges choose to study. According to data from the federal Education Department, students at elite universities are more likely to pursue degrees in the humanities, arts and social sciences than students at less selective schools, who tend to choose majors that are more likely to lead to an immediate, well-paying job.1

The most popular fields of study among students at the most selective schools are the social sciences, with 19 percent of degrees awarded in majors such as political science, economics and sociology. The next two most popular groups of majors are the biological and biomedical sciences and engineering. At less selective schools, the most common fields of study are related to business (the Education Department calls this category “business, management, marketing and related support services”), with 19 percent of degrees awarded in those majors. The next most popular group is “health professions and related programs.”

Career-focused majors — such as business, education and journalism — are more prevalent at less selective schools than at top-tier schools. Education ranks as the fifth most popular major at less selective schools but is the 21st most popular major at the most selective schools. Other vocation-specific majors such as law enforcement are also more popular at less selective schools.2 In total, more than half of students at less selective schools major in career-focused subjects; at elite schools, less than a quarter of students do so.3

Most popular majors at …

Less selective colleges

MAJOR SHARE OF DEGREES
1 Business, management, marketing and related support services 19.3%
2 Health professions and related programs 11.9
3 Psychology 6.5
4 Social sciences 6.3
5 Education 5.7
6 Biological and biomedical sciences 5.5
7 Engineering 5.2
8 Communication, journalism and related programs 5.1
9 Visual and performing arts 4.8
10 Homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting and related protective service 3.5

More selective colleges

MAJOR SHARE OF DEGREES
1 Social sciences 19.4%
2 Biological and biomedical sciences 10.1
3 Engineering 10.1
4 Business, management, marketing and related support services 9.8
5 Psychology 6.3
6 Visual and performing arts 5.6
7 Health professions and related programs 3.8
8 Computer and information sciences and support services 3.6
9 Physical sciences 3.6
10 English language and literature/letters 3.5

Selectivity is based on Barron’s selectivity index.

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Barron’s

These numbers run counter to the common stereotype of students majoring in “useless” subjects and complaining when they can’t find jobs. In fact, comparatively few students at less selective schools — the vast majority of U.S. college students and the ones most likely to be pursuing degrees primarily for their career benefits — major in these less practical fields.

Jennie Brand, a sociology professor at UCLA whose research focuses on the impact of and access to higher education, said that attending college is a big financial sacrifice for many lower-income students. “So the actual job payoff becomes more front and center relative to students who have always thought they would go to college,” Brand said. The most common category of majors for students in less selective schools — business, management, marketing and related support services — is a prime example. The median annual earnings for recent business graduates is $37,000, which is slightly higher than the median salary of all majors, according to a 2015 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

And the business major is significant in another way: Relatively few business majors go on to graduate school. Just 22 percent of students who major in business or related fields go on to earn a graduate degree, according to the Georgetown report. That’s a smaller share than any other category of majors that the report examined except for communications and journalism. A graduate degree — especially a professional degree such as an MBA or a law degree — can provide a big boost to students’ earnings, but they also take time and money to earn.

Brad Hershbein, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said students who major in business are less likely to want to go to graduate school “not so much because they can’t get in [but] because they are more likely to end up in a job where it is not necessary, which is probably a lot of reasons why people study it in the first place.”

At the other end of the spectrum, many students at elite universities expect to go to graduate school. That can make their choice of undergraduate major matter less, since they will have a chance to earn a more professionally useful degree in graduate school.4 And even when they don’t pursue an advanced degree, graduates of elite schools may find that their choice of major matters less in the job market than the name of the school they attended — a Harvard degree can open doors even if it isn’t in a directly relevant field. That may help explain why social sciences is a popular field of study at more selective schools. Recent social sciences graduates earn a median salary of $33,000, which is lower than the earnings of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and business majors.

But students at top schools are not just pursuing the humanities and social sciences at higher rates than students at less selective schools; they are also studying hard sciences and engineering at higher rates as well. STEM jobs tend to be well-paying, but many fields require graduate education to advance, which may make lower-income students reluctant to pursue STEM degrees (nearly 58 percent of biology and life sciences majors go on to earn graduate degrees). Also, Hershbein said, some students at less selective schools may shy away from STEM majors because they haven’t had the preparation they need during high school.

But while focusing on more practical majors — such as business — may seem like the best route in the short term, majoring in the humanities may be more beneficial in the long term. In the first years after graduation, social sciences and humanities majors earn less than people who have pre-professional degrees, but at peak earning ages, liberal arts majors surpass people in pre-professional degrees, in part because they are more likely to have graduate degrees. After people who focused on the social sciences and humanities as undergraduates attend graduate school, they may end up working as lawyers or professors, which are high-paying professions.

“Selective college is sort of like an intellectual summer camp for a lot of people because they don’t intend to stop, so for a lot of advantaged people, they get their job training in graduate school,” said Anthony Carnevale, director at the Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Footnotes

  1. These claims, and the figures in the subsequent paragraphs, are based on an analysis of data from the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. I looked at the majors of students who earned undergraduate degrees from four-year institutions between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016. Only first majors were considered.

    Selectivity is based on a 2009 ranking that Barron’s did for its guide to colleges, as published by The New York Times. “Elite schools” (and similar phrases) refer to the 78 colleges in the most selective tier in Barron’s rankings for which we have complete data; “less selective schools” (and similar phrases) refer to the more than 1,800 colleges in the Education Department’s data set that were not included in the Barron’s ranking of selective schools. I also looked at majors among schools in the three intermediate tiers, but they aren’t discussed in this analysis.

  2. Not all majors are offered at every school. In particular, some elite schools don’t offer many vocationally oriented majors.

  3. I assigned majors to one of three broad categories: career-focused subjects such as business, health and education; liberal arts subjects, including social sciences, fine arts and humanities; and STEM subjects such as engineering, computer science and the natural sciences. At less selective schools, 55 percent of students majored in career-focused subjects, versus 21 percent of students at elite schools. Some majors fall into a gray area — health, for example, could also be categorized as STEM — but the basic trend is clear under essentially any plausible categorization.

  4. Undergraduate major can, of course, affect a student’s chances of admission to graduate school. Graduate programs also often have prerequisites.

Michelle Cheng is FiveThirtyEight’s data reporting intern.

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