Picking a College Major for the Money


Is your child interested in picking a college major based on those ubiquitous 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 suggests 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 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 mathwas 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:

art studio paintsYou 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 — studio art, psychology, Spanish, theater, anthropology – what matters is making the most of your time at school.

That should include getting involved in meaningful activities, finding a mentor and locating internships. Before graduating you and all college students should also have learned such basics as Microsoft Office (including Excel and Powerpoint) Google Drive, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro (video editing) and be able to create a website. You should also be able to 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. hi. So I just went to the website that Bill G recommended in an earlier post… mymajors.com. I did the quiz and afterword it just took me to a search results page – I’m not even sure what search the results were from, but it was basically just a bunch of links back to mymajors.com and links to colleges – i got nothing in the way of quiz results telling me which majors would be beneficial – complete and total waste of time! And who the hell has time to waste these days?! So hopefully this post will help someone, or hopefully many, to not waste time on this website!
    Good luck!!!

  2. There’s a web site called MyMajors that takes it a step farther. MyMajors has an assessment tool that takes into consideration a student’s interest AND their academic ability. MyMajors then recommends a range of majors that a student might like AND have academic success with.

  3. I started out as a business major because I wanted to make a lot of money. It was a miserable experience and I dropped out after my second year to re-assess life and discovered I was passionate about helping disadvantaged youth. That really motivated me to go back to school and work harder than I thought I could. I eventually joined the Peace Corps, completed grad school, and am completing my 14th year as a school counselor working with students who are much like I was at that age. I don’t regret my choice.

  4. Another factor to consider when choosing a profession to train for is work/life balance. The average associate at a law firm is not just lucky to have the job, he had better be willing to work 70 hours a week.
    This can place considerable strain on a person, it can destroy a family.

  5. Speaking from experience, I don’t think that you have to be great in math to major in business. Many people major in accounting or finance because they are great at math and do not excel at English or Communications. This creates a real need for Directors and Managers for Accounting and Finance Departments…….individuals that have degrees in business, but also have outstanding communication and leadership skills.

    I have a B.S. in Marketing and an M.S. in Finance and math is not my strength, however I am good at communications. As a result I advanced very quickly in a Finance Department and within 3 years advanced from Analyst to Director.

  6. Hi Lynn,
    My son is living your advice as we speak. He started his freshman year of college in August as potential pre-med major. Sounds good to most parents! But it was not his true calling or passion. I was relatively supportive when he chose it, but I think much of his decision was influenced by friends, whose families include doctors, surgeons and so on. He likes the look of that nice life, and the respect it garners. In high school he did well in sciences, but more so chemistry than biology. He has always been what I’d call a math kid, and he enjoyed economics, too.

    So, first semester grades (at a private liberal arts school in NY) were not good. I think he was probably overwhelmed with the amount of work of too much science. He dropped his pre-med notions and is continuing with math and some history, poli sci and econ. Time will tell what major he chooses, but he definitely seems happier about his academics.

    I am grateful that he discovered this about himself early on, and that he still likes college and his new friends. I told him that it’s all part of the learning process: Know thyself! Better to face it before going down a path of stress and anxiety.


    1. That Denise for sharing. I think students do pick majors without understanding what they face. It’s good that your son learned this early. He will have plenty of time to recover and at a liveral arts college he has the flexibility to change course!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy