I’ve blogged a few times about the topic of choosing a college and degree over the past three years (on April 13 twice and Nov. 3 of 2013; Sept. 9, 2014), but I’m going to try to reframe the topic here in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific college or major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major or college matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a college or major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a college or major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fairly fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs that they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a certain course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of B.B.A. and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation.

    So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably 1% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university.

    Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. However, I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much.

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