These days you can’t turn around without hearing about the high cost of college. Student loans are growing like mortgages in the housing bubble. And in the weak economy graduates are having a tough time putting their degree to work right after getting their diploma. There’s been a lot of talk about the value of a degree or which degree to get, and Georgetown University has now published a huge collection of data on the subject called “What’s it Worth? The Economic Value Of College Majors”. In it you can see all kinds of stuff about earnings and which degree is worth what. It could be helpful to someone trying to pick a major, as many people don’t consider future earnings when they pick one.
Seeing as this guide for college majors is fairly large and could be daunting to a teenager trying think of what to major in, I thought I’d offer up some Weakonomics inspired advice for all the young ones out there. So here’s the rational thing to do:
Major in whatever will make you the most money
That’s it. This is about maximizing happiness in life; and like it or not time and again research shows that income is one of the greatest indicators of happiness.
Now this advice really isn’t all that practical, even if it is rational. So here’s a more balanced approach to picking a major:
Earnings: This is still the heaviest weight. You have to consider not how much you make, but how much sounds good to you.
College placement/specialties: It might not be a good idea to decide to become a nurse at a school that doesn’t having a nursing school, or has terrible scores with students trying to get certified. Make sure you know what your school offers, and what it is best at placing students in.
Growth potential: Some industries may have insanely high earnings, but there isn’t much career growth. A lot of engineers may make good money after college, but there aren’t a lot of opportunities to branch out beyond engineering. If growing in your career is important, a degree with some versatility in industries might helpful.
Your skills: Everyone should be aware of their own skills. If you’re better than average at something, it’s smart to see how that can be parlayed into a lucrative career. Math was always a strong suit for me, so engineering might have been a good option.
Your interests: Doing what you love is a luxury, but should be considered as well when it comes to a major or a career. I didn’t discover an interest in economics until later in college, but my fascination with technology led to data which brought me to economics. So economics might have been a good minor for me. Many have interests and skills that are the same, but it’s important to take stock of what you’re good at, in addition to just what you like.
Perhaps more important than anything else, is starting early. If you’re still confused or unsure, consider doing the rational thing and picking a degree with high earning potential. You can always work your way back to a different major. If picking a major is too difficult, at least try to pick a school with a good track record of job placement in diverse fields and industries. They’ll have the connections and resources to help place people in areas they may not have majored in.
But finally, please understand that a degree is not a commitment to a certain job. Data on jobs and income divided by major is important, but it’s really just one of many steps in finding a career. You can do just about anything with a degree so long as you can convince an employer that you’re smart. However, a smart person will at least be informed about the career prospects of their major before they dive in. So grab a towel.