Ailts: We place too much importance on a college major

The myths about college majors shaped our ideas about higher education.

by Ellen Ailts

“What’s your major?”

The question is familiar to college students. Usually, it’s one of the first questions people ask of students upon first meeting. Whether the question comes from other students, family, friends, academic advisors or Lyft drivers, it can feel like your answer holds a lot of weight. Your major quickly defines you — what type of person you are, your values, your interests, even your level of intelligence. 

Naturally, the assumptions people make about you based on your major are derived from vague stereotypes they hold about different fields of study, and can therefore feel very reductive. College students themselves might pick a major due to their own preconceived notions about what certain majors mean, or because they’re influenced by the preconceptions of others. According to a report from the Education Consumer Pulse, 55 percent of college students are most influenced by their informal social network — that is, friends, family and community leaders — in making their major choice. Only 11 percent looked to high school counselors for guidance, and 28 percent looked to college advisers — and most students found the advice to be largely unhelpful. The inaccurate information and near-mythic stereotypes that people hold about college majors can mislead students in their choice, and put too much importance on the major in the first place.

A lot of myths around college majors are related to the eventual payday. There is the myth about the unemployable humanities major — conventional opinion suggests that studying philosophy or art history condemns you to a life of hardship and poverty, which simply isn’t true. In 2013, the median salary for those with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities was $50,000, only slightly lower than the median salary for all bachelor’s degree holders, which was $57,000 — the median salary for those with just a high school diploma was $35,000. 

On the flip side, STEM majors don’t always become wildly rich. A student might choose a major because of the ideas they or their families have about a potential big paycheck, but there are various statistics that point to the variability of salary within a major, and it seems that it’s more up to the individual than to a major choice. Many study business hoping to make big bucks, but the average business graduate earns $2.86 million over a lifetime, but an average English major — a stereotypically low-paying degree — makes $2.76 million over a lifetime. 

None of this is to undermine any student’s choice in major — major choice is deeply personal and made for many different reasons, but it’s important to not feel pressured to study something that doesn’t make sense for you, simply because it ostensibly seems to pay more, earn you higher social standing or conform to cultural/familial expectations. Basically, trust your instincts. We need students across all disciplines, studying that which engages their passion and drive. How much a specific major actually matters, even, is up for debate; for example, many colleges ignore official major lists and offer an individualized course of study. Also, having a career unrelated to your college major is quite common — one study found that only 27 percent of grads had a job closely related to their major. 

An educated population with a wide range of knowledge and interests is vital for a healthy society and culture, and part of its foundation is encouraging young people to study that which motivates and interests them — not to box them in by placing too much importance on the almighty college major.