Chasing After the Money in College


Is your child interested in picking a college major based on lists of the country’s highest-paying college degrees?

Plenty of students are pursuing degrees that they perceive will generate the biggest salaries. I assume that’s why business is the most popular major – more than one out of every five students select it. I can’t resist mentioning that the blockbuster Academically Adrift study suggested that the grads who learned the least in college are business majors!

Searching for a College Major

There are risks in picking majors by following the dollar signs, but before I explain why, please take a look at an email that I received over the weekend from a student I’ll call John:

I’m in a sticky situation. I am a freshman in college at the University of North Florida. Both my parents graduated with engineering degrees so I am being pressured to be major in something that in my parents view as important (engineering, biology, or law).

My dad makes good money so I felt like that the best option for me was engineering. Next semester I was supposed to take my Calculus I class to go on the engineering path, but I hit a road bump already because I got a 62% in Pre-Calculus. I have always thought of international business in the back of my mind and I talked to my counselor about double majoring with finance, accounting or an economics degree. Well I was wondering do any of these majors promise a job and a good future economically. Please help me!

Picking the Wrong Major

I can appreciate the dilemma this student faces. He picked engineering as a potential major because his parents would approve and he’d be more likely to find a good paying job.  His mistake, however, was selecting a major without considering where his talents and interests lie. Pursuing an engineering degree won’t lead to a top-paying job if you crash and burn or you just barely survive the experience.

Here is the response that I sent John:

The absolute worst thing you can do is major in something just because your parents desire it. The wash-out rate for engineering majors is extremely high and wanting to major in engineering because the profession enjoys higher salaries is probably going to fail. People who drop out of engineering programs are going to be in worse shape than those who major in something they really like and are good at. It doesn’t really matter what the major is, what’s important is getting a degree.

Here is a blog post that I recommend that you and your parents should read:  Getting Real About Majoring in Engineering

Follow-Up Email

I received a follow-up email from John:

Do you know anything about accounting, finance, or economics degrees and which of these degrees could most help me get a job for the future?

Here is my second email:

You should look for a major that you can actually succeed at. If you aren’t good with numbers, you should stay away from majors like accounting and finance.  You can major in anything — art history, psychology, Spanish, theater, anthropology – what matters is making the most of your time at school (including getting involved, finding a mentor, locating internships etc.) and making sure that by the time you graduate that you can speak in front of a group, think critically and write well. Those are abilities that employers care about.

I’d highly recommend getting the Thinking Student’s Guide to College which should help you understand what you should be doing in terms of picking a major.

Another Student Pursuing Engineering

I received John’s email at the same time that I’ve been trying to convince a high school senior in St. Louis (my hometown) to ditch his intention to major in engineering. Jay loves theater and singing and has participated in the drama and choir groups throughout his high school years even as he’s had to work long hours at a store because his parents are low income.

Jay feels strongly that he needs to major in engineering to help his family financially, but he doesn’t understand that you need more than desire to successfully major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Jay has not taken Calculus nor Advanced Placement physics or chemistry in high school. His lowest subscore on the ACT was a 20 in science (the top score possible is a 36). I still haven’t convinced Jay that starting college with an inappropriate major is going to make succeeding in school much more difficult.

 Your Thoughts?

What do you think of students who select majors that don’t fit their abilities? What do you think of students selecting majors strictly based on anticipated future earnings? If you have thoughts, please share them in the box below.

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  1. Thanks for the article. I agree that if John does not have a real passion for engineering then he is setting himself up for failure by pursuing that degree. As some of the other comments point out, I think that it is important to find a “balance” between passion and interests in the degree and happiness and fulfillment as a result of the degree.

    An example is psychology. Many students choose to major in psychology because they have a passion for it and enjoy the classes, which is great. The problem is that a large percentage of the students who only obtain their bachelors degree aren’t able to find a job that is in any way related to psychology and they are forced to accept a position in a completely unrelated field such as retail or office administration. I think that if students consider their passion for a subject as well as the realistic job opportunities and careers in that subject, they will be in a great position to sign a major.

  2. I agree that our children should follow their passion. I also think they should balance the debt they rack up with their potential income. Their total debt should not exceed their first years realistic projected pay.

  3. Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for the great article! I really like the part about “not majoring in a major that is your parent’s dream.” As a student who is pretty fresh out of college, I wish I would have chosen a better major and had a better idea of what I was getting into.

    My younger sister is now in the process of picking a major and has so much information that is being thrown at her. We stumbled across this app yesterday ( while searcing for career quiz apps), that shows you jobs associated with a college major, the money you can make, and then a bunch of free classes that you can take to “try out” the major..

    I wish I had this back then and thought I should let you know about this to help other students!

    I think it’s called “Majors:Education”… or similar to that.. I know it was a big red M on the appstore.

    Thanks again for the article


  4. Lynn, as a parent who will soon be sending my first child of to college, I couldn’t agree with you more. However, that was not always the case. Even a year ago, I was warning my daughter against picking a major with low career earnings prospects. Since then, I have read and heard so much about following your passion and how doing something you love will lead to more happiness in your career. My daughter has a passion for Art History. She can tell you all about a painting or sculpture and you can see the excitement on her face and hear it in her voice. She can confidently stand up in front of a group and talk about her trip to Paris and Rome to see major works of art. It hit me recently that she needs to follow this passion and see where it takes her. I told her this recently and will continue to stress this as she gets closer to picking a college and going off to school. I am stressing with her that a person has a better chance at long-term financial success following their passions than by going into a field they don’t love that is considered to be a high-paying career.

    I think we need to stress two things to high school students as they start their college search: 1) It’s ok to follow what your passion and see where it leads, 2) It is ok to wait to pick a major until you figure out what you are passionate about. Most schools have really good career exploration programs now to help you narrow down what you are interested in.

    1. Thanks Wendy for your comment! I obviously agree with you. I should add that just because a person majors in art history or theater, for instance, doesn’t mean that they can only seek those jobs. Zac Bissonnette, a recent college grad whom I admire greatly, is a art history major. He has done amazing things including writing two books — Debt Free U. and How to be Richer, Smarter and Better-Looking Than Your Parents.

      I’m glad your daughter will get to pursue her passion without feeling guilty!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. I feel our students continue to be lost not only because of the lack of access to ALL possible careers and their preparation (classes they need to be taking) but their limited access to opportunities to awaken their creativity. Afterall, creativity is what leads to innovation regardless of the industry or field. Students do need to follow those activities that enhance and sharpen their creativity whether it is a music class or cooking workshop….I found a link for a video for Tinkering School and how refreshing it is to see a new approach to solving problems and thus unleashing their creativity:

    1. Thanks Beatriz. I love the TED talk on tinkering. I’m going to send that to my son, who is a lifeline tinkerer. I just sent him a bunch of dowels and balsa wood to Hungary because he was desperate to build stuff. As soon as he got the package, he built a ballista and a Christmas present for his sister.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. Another problem is that many positions that require STEM degrees can eventually be outsourced or filled from a larger applicant pool. A large corporation with a presence in India, for example, can go to one of the country’s Institutes of Technology to find a computer programmer a lab tech or an engineer. The routine work that many of these professionals do can be delegated to a lower-salaried worker.

    There has been a trend towards “in-sourcing,” bringing the foreign manufacturing of complex products such as autos, washer-dryers and larger appliances and machines back to the United States. The firms such as General Electric do not want to lose their product knowledge to “copy-cats” in other countries. The professionals needed to redesign these complex products need to be educated and passionate. They also need to be at the very top of the applicant pool.

  7. Lynn,
    Most of the time, students don’t even have a clue about what their future “job” from 9-6 will be when they are considering a major in college. They don’t know what the person actually “does for a living” when they go to work. Sadly, this occurs more often than not. If we really wanted to “educate the masses” we would be better off having a class in high school called “This is what you will be doing for REAL when you want to grow up.” Imagine if pre- STEM students could see the final job description and work performed. My son was interested in architecture. Fortunately for him, I knew some architects. His first thoughts about what an architect does was what he saw on “How I Met Your Mother”. I got a good laugh at his expectations. But, two hours at an architectural firm, seeing 10 different people and what they did (5 mins each) gave him a better understanding about his future. We need, as parents, to really have our children understand a “profession” before, rather than after they start a college major. .

  8. Great article, Lynn. This is a subject that comes up often with parents who refuse to pay for college unless the student studies an area that is parent-approved and / or lucrative. In asking students to define success, the best response I ever received was from a HS junior who said: “Do something you love, and excel at it”.