The underrated factor: College majors

Alicia Vargelis

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During the fall semester of senior year, many Redwood students embark on the college admissions marathon. With multiple applications, meticulously-edited essays, and teacher recommendations, it’s easy to get swept up in the exhaustion that often comes with applying to college. However, Redwood students should put as much energy, if not more, into choosing their majors.

Choosing a major is one of the biggest economic decisions a person will make in his or her lifetime, according to a study by Georgetown University. The study uses census data to analyze average lifetime wages for 137 college majors, regardless of what career field they eventually pursued.

Infographic by Alicia Vargelis

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The data is based solely on an individual’s college major, and shows their average income, regardless of what career field they eventually pursued. It is no surprise that science, engineering, and business are the highest paying majors while psychology, art, and history are the lowest, but what is unanticipated is the extreme difference in lifetime earnings between the two categories. People who choose the highest-paying majors can make up to $3.4 million more in a lifetime than those who choose the lowest-paying majors, according to the study.

During a discussion on the NPR podcast “Planet Money,” the hosts brought up the fact that post-college employment also varies dramatically between Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and liberal arts majors. There is more demand for STEM college graduates, which results in more job opportunities.

So what does this mean for students who do not want to pursue STEM subjects but still want to earn a reasonable income?

The Georgetown study results do not include data for students who go on to earn a graduate degree, which is why students who choose lower paying majors are advised to go to graduate school in order to make a middle class wage, according to Georgetown University researcher Dr. Anthony Carnevale.

However, despite the data from this study showing how dramatically earnings vary for different majors, students should also consider interest and passion for a certain subject when choosing a major. You are not going to be successful in a certain field if you hate your job.

This is why students’ majors need to reflect a balance between a subject they are passionate about, a major that the job market has a demand for and one that will result in substantial earnings.

Going to graduate school can dramatically increase lifetime earnings, and therefore makeup for a low-paying major. In 2009, individuals who had a bachelor degree had median lifetime earnings of $2,268,000, while those with a master’s degree earned $2,671,000, those with a doctoral degree earned $3,252,000, and with professional degree earned $3,648,000, according to the Georgetown study.

Carnevale believes that “passion trumps economic interests” too often. While it is important that students have majors they are interested in, they need to develop a realistic plan for how they will pay off their college debt. Attending a university is an expensive investment in your future, and students can’t choose impractical majors and expect to get a high earning job after college.

For me, I know that majoring in STEM is not an option given that I am not passionate about the subjects in that field nor am I particularly good at them. However, I understand that if I major in journalism or communications, I will probably attend law school afterwards to help me pay back my student loans.

While applying to college is an important process, more emphasis needs to be put on picking a major, because it’s students’ major, not their college, that will determine their lifetime earnings. Students need to put time into selecting a major that they are passionate about and that will provide them economic stability in the future.