Thinking Through Degree Choices

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.

Questionnaire for English Grads

My friend Paul Corrigan (Ph.D., Purdue U.; Asst. Prof. of English, Southeastern University) has developed the following questionnaire for English majors who did not go into teaching or on to graduate school. He hopes to gather results to develop a guide for other English majors who intend to follow the same path. He will collect responses and make them publicly available.

If you could pass this link along to potentially interested English grads he would very much appreciate it.

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1nuMfaj-drN2Cc1PmtEfkbVxUY2wrkBn1WwD4ok4TmY0/viewform?c=0&w=1

Thanks very much,
Jim

Some Tough Questions about Picking a Major

10062011_Harvard1_articleBeth Braverman’s “Controversial College Rankings a Huge Influence,” recently published in The Fiscal Times, asserts what is becoming the new conventional wisdom about getting a college degree: a college education needs to be understood as an economic investment, and the most common ranking measures don’t take that into account. The main concern here is “return on investment,” often abbreviated as ROI, which is a comparison of the cost of your college degree to your degree’s future earning power.  For example, spending $175,000 on a degree that will only gain you employment in fields that may never pay more than about $65,000 or $70,000 per year at the end of your career may not be a wise idea: if your degree carries with it lower income potential, then you want to avoid high debt in attaining it.

I think these are good insights and need to factor in to student decision making about college attendance. However, reasoning about this subject tends to miss a few vital questions that I think are necessary to advance the discussion. Braverman’s article closes with the following: “‘A petroleum engineering major is going to make a lot more money than a psych major without a graduate degree, no matter what school you go to,’ Carnevale says.” Carnevale chose petroleum engineering as an example of a high paying degree for a reason: it’s listed as the number one paying major by ThinkAdvisor. In fact, among the highest paying majors, thirteen of the top sixteen majors, and all of the top eleven, have the word “engineering” in it. Of the top twenty majors in terms of income potential, engineering dominates the list.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that as of 2009-2010 only about 1% of all bachelor degrees conferred were in engineering. What are most college students pursuing? According to the NCES, “Of the 1,650,000 bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2009–10, the greatest numbers of degrees were conferred in the fields of business (358,000); social sciences and history (173,000); health professions and related programs (130,000); and education (101,000).” Of course the high pay in engineering fields very likely reflects in part an underproduction of graduates in these fields: if there were more engineering graduates than engineering jobs, then average pay would go down, and if there were more engineering graduates than jobs persistently for year after year, pay would eventually bottom out.

But now we get to the really hard question: how many of those business, social science, health profession, and education majors are both interested in and able to become engineers? Telling everyone that it’s smarter financially to go into engineering than to go into social work is almost too obvious to need saying, but how many people interested in social work have the disposition and ability to become engineers?  You could ask the question the other way too: how many engineers have the disposition and ability to become effective social workers or high school teachers?

Telling people to pick a higher paying major isn’t enough. If you’re not the type of person who can or will go into engineering or computer science, how do you make a living with your bachelor’s degree? Which and what kind of graduate degrees pay best is another question to pursue, but it generally follows the same patterns. The reality is not that some jobs are inherently better or worth more than others. The reality is that — by mere accidents of history — some skill and interest sets come with more consistent financial rewards than others.  Any skill or interest set could conceivably lead someone to make millions (look at the number of successful actors, directors, and producers who were English majors), but the question at hand here is the statistically most consistent likelihood of a financial return on your college degree. If you happen to be the engineering type, as things are working out now, you’re in good shape.

The next claim made by the new conventional wisdom is that the name brand of the degree doesn’t matter as much as what field the degree is in, but again, I think this claim stops one step short of fully thinking through the problem. If you have a degree in petroleum engineering, you won’t be competing with Harvard English majors for jobs. You’ll be competing with other petroleum engineering majors. Does name brand on the degree matter among petroleum majors? Are there schools that have better reputations and land their graduates more jobs than other schools within this specific field? If 22% of all graduates in 2009-2010 were Business majors, what influences employers to pick one business school graduate over another?

Braverman’s article cites internships and work experience after choice of major as the most important factors, but if an employer has narrowed down a job search to ten candidates with the same kind of degree and equally compelling experience, what do you think will matter next? Suppose the employer then narrowed his or her choice down to the top three who were the best fit and gave the best interviews? What matters next? It’s a bit ridiculous, I think, to say that name brand on a degree does not matter. I think the question is about when and where and how a college’s name recognition matters.

So here is my advice to those of you currently in the process of choosing a college: don’t think about what college you want to attend first. Think about what major you want to pursue, or perhaps what group of majors you might want to pursue. Among those majors, compare the cost of attaining the degree to your likely income, and then select

  • the highest ranked college
  • in that area of study
  • that you can afford with minimal debt

What if you’re undecided, as most of us are upon graduating high school? What if you really have no idea what major you want to pursue? If you’re a strong student, then get into the best college (generally) that you can afford with minimal debt. If you’re a weak to average student, you might want to consider a good community college, especially if you plan to transfer those credits in-state. Attending a community college will keep your costs down and give you a range of course options and institutional support that will help you choose a major.

It might help for you to get to know yourself a little bit too.