A lot's been said about the high cost of a college education. According to figures from the College Board, average tuition and fees for in-state students in the public four-year sector increased to around $9,970 in the 2017-18 school year. Meanwhile, room and board charges came in at $10,800.
With figures like those, it's no wonder that average student loan debt came in at around $28,650 per student in 2017. Additionally, millennials are increasingly putting off major milestones, like buying a house or having children, in order to focus on servicing the student loan ball-and-chain.
Still, a degree is no longer a surefire guarantee for employment in this day and age. In fact, the years following the Great Recession have revealed that a bachelor's degree might just be the "new high school diploma" and employers are increasingly seeking out workers that have much more than a degree — things like experience, connections and special qualities that help them stand out.
Choosing the right college major can make a world of difference. But, how do you know how to choose a major? After all, such an important decision must be about much more than stats, figures and pie charts.
Deciding on a major
Of course it's all about the money in some ways, but you should also remember your college major will dictate your life's work and even your future.
That said, there are some questions you should ask yourself before you commit to a college major that may just change your life for better or for worse. Here's how to choose your college major:
1. Is this major broad enough to apply to more than one field?
Choosing a college major can be easy if you know exactly what kind of career you want to end up in. Take registered nursing, for example. If you want to be a nurse, you can simply sign up for a BSN degree program at your school of choice and finish it from beginning to end. What's the problem? If you end up not being a good fit for nursing, however, your degree may not have that much practical benefit for getting a job in another field. That's because, while nursing is a noble profession, the college major that takes you there is highly specialized.
If your heart's set on a major that is specific to an industry, all isn't lost. You should, however, be sure of your choice before you sign up. What if you don't enjoy the field you end up working in? Are there other career trajectories you could embark on after earning a degree in this major? Perhaps a certificate program in another field could help you reinvent yourself after the fact, but these are all questions you should ask yourself.
2. Will I be able to find a job once I graduate?
Following your passion can be a wonderful or not-so-great idea when it comes to choosing a college major. That's because, like it or not, some careers are adding workers over the years and others are staying flat or losing workers.
If you want to find out where your potential career falls on the spectrum, you can start by searching the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) database for career data applicable to your future industry and geographic location. The BLS can show you, for example, that employment for petroleum engineers is expected to increase 15 percent during in the 2016-26 decade, or that jobs for police and detectives are supposed to increase only 7 percent during that same time frame.
Use this kind of publicly available information to get a good idea of where your future industry is headed, and whether or not you'll be able to get your foot in the door.
3. Can I picture myself working in this field for the next 10-30 years?
Let's face it — even a job you love turns into "work" at a certain point. When you're choosing your college major, one of the biggest questions you should ask yourself is, "can I see myself doing this for the next 20 to 30 years?"
If the answer is yes, ask yourself why that is. Is your answer based on wishful thinking or reality? If your answer is no, it might be time to reevaluate your college major choice and consider a different field altogether. If you thought high school was long, imagine what it's like to do the same thing every day for longer than you've been alive.
4. Is the return-on-investment high enough for this college major?
A college degree isn't just a goal, it's an investment. And unless your parents are footing the bill or you scored a full ride, you need to seriously consider whether the money you're forking over is a good use of those funds.
For example, some college majors cost a ton of money and lead straight to low-paying jobs in industries with slow growth and sluggish earnings. Meanwhile, others lead to careers that pay higher-than-average wages with plenty of room for promotion. As we noted in our feature pieces on 15 Surprisingly Valuable Arts and Literature Majors, there are a number of majors, in the arts as well as other disciplines, that offer unique advantages or perks including educational availability, job opportunity for fresh grads and affordability of getting the degree in the first place.
If you want to explore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is once again a good place to start. Search careers you're interested in and you can find salary data for last year, including data specific to your state. What you find might surprise you.
5. Does my personality fit the field?
Does your personality fit this major? Hopefully the answer is yes, but wishful thinking may not be enough. For example, many people dream about a fast-paced career in sales yet simply do not have the personality and fortitude to cold call potential clients and put themselves out there.
Other college majors tend to cater to specific personalities as well. For example, computer science and technical writing can be somewhat solitary careers, and those who are outgoing may not enjoy spending much of their time in their own head. Figure out where your personality lies and ask yourself, "is this major a good fit for who I really am?"
6. Will I need to pursue a graduate degree in this field?
Earning a bachelor's degree in psychology is a great way to learn about the human mind, but where will it take you professionally? Realistically, if you want to actually work as a psychologist, you'll typically be required to earn a doctorate in addition to that four-year-degree.
If you choose your college major based solely on your future career, make sure you understand what other requirements you may need to meet in order to get your foot in the door. For example:
- Do you need to earn an advanced, post-grad degree to gain employment?
- Do you need any additional certifications to get started?
Use this information to decide whether your college major is actually a good fit.
7. Would I be better off choosing something more lucrative?
Exploring salary data with the BLS could reveal some things you didn't know about the career that corresponds with your college major of choice. For example, you may have found that it actually pays far less than you realized. Ask yourself, "is that OK?"
If you live in an area with a high cost of living, for example, you are right to worry about a low salary once you graduate. And if you plan to have a family, you are justified if you choose to change majors altogether. After all, you probably won't enjoy your future career as much if it requires a lifetime of struggle. And who wants to live like that?
8. Is this a field I'm going to enjoy?
It's also important to pick a major that isn't related to a field that doesn't match your interests. For example, if you have a serious disdain for math and science, don't pick a college major in engineering simply because you read it pays well. Compensation is more than just salary -- factors like commute, nature of the work, potential for advancement and work-life balance should all be factored into the idea of compensation. You can weight each individual factor against the other based on the kind of lifestyle you're aiming to lead after school.
Likewise, don't be too afraid to do something you love and enjoy just because you won't earn six figures in your first year. There's a difference between finding a career with a terrible earnings forecast and choosing something you love that may not necessarily lead to high income status. Find a balance and choose something that makes you happy.
9. Have you observed others who work in this field?
Do you really know what makes you happy? If you have never seen someone in your future field working on the job, you may not really know for sure. After all, your idea of a career and what it's is really like might be two entirely different things.
To find out, try to spend some time shadowing someone who earned a college major in a field you're interested in and find out what their job is really like. What are their hours like? What are the downsides of this career? Has their college major opened many doors for them? Or has it been a hindrance? There's only one way to find out.
10. Will this major lead to a job that fits your lifestyle?
The last component to finding a college major that "fits" is whether or not the field you're choosing will actually fit with the lifestyle you want to live. Take petroleum engineering, for example. Engineering hopefuls maybe be drawn to that major and field simply because earnings are high and the career outlook is bright. However, what many don't know is that many jobs in this line of work require travel and long stints of time away from home compared to other engineering specializations. If you have a family or don't like to travel, that's something to consider.
Again, shadowing is another great way to find out what kind of lifestyle people live after they earn a degree in the major you're interested in. But don't just shadow them at work — ask how they live. What is their lifestyle like when it comes to work? Is this career conducive to having a family? Do they get plenty of vacation? Do they get benefits? Is this industry "family friendly"? These are all things you should want to know before choosing your major.
Choosing a college major is serious business
When it comes to choosing a major, the questions above are just the tip of the iceberg. Once you start learning more about fields you're interested in, you might become interested in other fields that strike your fancy, maybe even ones you didn't know about before.
So choose wisely and take great care to understand the magnitude of this decision. There's really no "right way" to choose a college major, but there's certainly a wrong one — choosing your college major without exploring what it really means, or what other options might be out there. Do your research and leave no stone unturned as you seek out answers. And, as always, make sure any decision you make is an informed one.
- "Trends in College Pricing 2017," The College Board, https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2017-trends-in-college-pricing_0.pdf
- "Student Debt and the Class of 2017," The Institute for College Access & Success, https://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/classof2017.pdf
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accessed October 2018, http://www.bls.gov/ooh