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.

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.

Understanding Four vs. Six-Year College Graduation Rates

If you’ve  been shopping for colleges you might have read about four and six year graduation rates. These rates are indicators of what percentage of entering freshmen finish college four years after starting and what percentage of entering freshmen finish six years after starting. Graduation rates beyond six years aren’t followed very closely, as most students finish within six years or not at all, and from the numbers I’ve seen, five and six year graduation rates tend to be very similar.

Time-to-Graduation too Often Overlooked” by Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos addresses the issue of time to graduation as a significant concern for students considering a college. They authors are concerned about the added costs involved in graduating six years after starting rather than four. Akers and Chingos provide quite a bit of useful data indicating that four and six year graduation rates can vary widely among institutions regardless of the institution’s quality on other measures, including the strength of incoming students’ ACT or SAT scores. Apparently, there’s no clear correlation among student scores, institutional quality, and differences between four and six year graduation rates:

One might assume that general metrics of college quality are good proxies for all sorts of outcomes, including time-to-degree. For example, perhaps institutions with good six-year graduation rates also have good four-year graduation rates so it doesn’t really matter which one students use.  But it turns out that this is not the case.  The average time-to-degree varies widely, even within institutions that seem to be of similar quality based on other measures.

What I would like to do here is help students think through why graduation rates might differ from school to school and how to evaluate those differences.

First, I agree with the basic point of both articles: students need to do all that they can to graduate in four years, because by doing so they’re saving money. These costs savings take the form of not paying for two years of additional tuition, room, board, and fees, and also in the form of two fewer years of lost income. The sooner you start work after college, the sooner your investment in college starts paying you back.

But it’s very important that we understand the range of possible reasons for these differences. Time to graduation is always just a matter of basic math: any four-year college that requires 120 credit hours to graduate requires 30 credits per year, or 15 credits (typically five classes) per semester. If a student passes five classes per semester every semester they will graduate in four years, period. So if 15-20% of a college’s students need an additional two years to graduate that’s not because of the degree structure or the college itself, unless significantly more than 120 credits are required for graduation.

Typical reasons that cause students to take more than four years to graduate include:

1. Failing or dropping classes — do this four or five times and you’ve added a semester to your completion time.
2. Sports injuries, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
3. Serious family issues or illnesses, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
4. Switching majors during or after your third year.
5. Adding minors, especially multiple minors.
6. Double majors.

At the end of this current semester of teaching, I have students who fit most if not all of the above categories.

Institutional reasons include:

7. Credit-intensive majors. The college usually can’t do anything about these requirements, as they are field-specific and are usually designed to meet state or federal requirements. For example, education majors at my current institution are all required to do coursework about equivalent to a double major. Those requirements are imposed by the state. Just know what you’re getting into if you select one of these majors.
8. The school doesn’t accept many or any transfer credits or students (i.e., most students start as freshmen), which raises the likelihood of more than four years to graduation. Transfer students will finish in two or three years, and if they graduate in four, they may have done it in four years at that institution but have taken much more than four years to get their degree.

Since my original draft, readers have suggested the following reasons for increased time to graduation.

9. One reader suggested that time to graduation may be increased if an institution has a significant population of non-traditional students, such as working adults. Working adults are often unable to attend full time so take longer to complete. My own alma mater, Rollins College, has an undergraduate evening program called the Hamilton Holt School that is largely populated by non-traditional students along with graduate programs with a similar student population. I suspect this school contributes to the 15% increase in six year graduation rates over four year graduation rates at Rollins College. I was one of these students. It took me nine years to complete my B.A. at three different institutions. I just happened to finish at Rollins College.
10. A college with a high population of remedial students will have longer time to graduation, as these courses often do not count for credit toward graduation. If a student has to take four remedial classes in two or three different subjects, that’s a semester added to their time to graduation. This problem may not be a negative if the college serves its remedial students well.
11. Are the college’s general education courses filled to overflowing? Do they offer too few sections for the students who need them? This problem is institutional and can extend time to graduation.
12. Does the college serve many veterans or those in the military? They often have to take a semester or more off for service. It’s a good thing that the college does so, but serving this population will affect a college’s stats on time to graduation.

So even if you see that there’s a big disconnect between four and six year graduation rates, you still don’t know what that means. If it’s because many students fail their classes, that means the school has meaningful academic standards but a weak student population, which is a mixed signal (bad in that students are weak, good in that at least the school has academic standards). If there’s a big difference between four- and six-year graduation rates because many students take credit-intensive majors or double majors, that’s a sign that the school has a high population of very motivated students, or very strong programs in credit-intensive majors, so that’s a good sign. Schools with a high four year graduation rates may have low academic standards, and faculty may be pressured to just pass everyone through, in which case a high four-year graduation rate can be a sign of a bad school. If the school has an evening program populated by working adults, then differences in four and six year graduation rates don’t tell you anything at all.

So finding out why these differences exist is what matters. The best thing to do is to consider this measure alongside many others, and compare your potential college’s graduation rates to national averages and other potential colleges. If they’re above the national average for their cohort, you’re on safe ground.

In general, four year private non-profit institutions have the best four to six year graduation rates, and for-profit institutions have the worst, running at about half the rate of public and private non-profit institutions.

Choosing a College or Major

Vonnegut QuotationI’ve been reading a variety of blogs about the process of choosing a college and major and feel that none of them really get to the point. All of them seemed concerned with long term happiness, though, which is a good place to start. One Forbes article advises students to identify their passions and make a plan. No kidding. Look both ways before crossing the street too. Another advises students not to focus on doing what they love, but to focus instead on financially viable educational and career paths. It’s always good advice to consider debt to potential income ratio in your educational choices, so follow that advice.

But it’s not necessarily good advice to pursue a job that you will hate because you think it’ll make you money. Some people can separate life satisfaction from job satisfaction, but many people can’t. Some people who make that choice aren’t very happy, and it shows in a variety of ways — miserable home lives, career burnout, and maybe late career switches that are costly in terms of both time and money. Heidi Grant Halvorson’s “The Key to Choosing the Right Career” provides an intelligent self-assessment measure — are you a promotion-focused person or a prevention-focused person?, which is something that you need to know — but knowing that won’t help you choose a career, as all industries have jobs for promotion-oriented people as well as jobs for prevention-oriented people. That self-assessment tells you more about what kind of job within a field that you’d enjoy than the field that you should study. There are, for example, art jobs for promotion-oriented people (producing original work) as well as art jobs for prevention-oriented people (commercial art), but both kinds of jobs are in the field of art. I want to help you decide whether or not to pursue art, English, business, or any other specific field. After you’ve selected a field of study, then you can decide what kind of job that you want in that field.

Before I get started, you should know that most community colleges and many four-year colleges and universities offer a variety of tests that can help you match your interests to a career. The ones I’ve taken have been fairly accurate for me, so if you have the opportunity to take one of these tests, I would recommend that you do so. What I’m going to say here is intended to help you think about the results if you’ve taken one of these tests, and to help you think about the big picture in terms of matching interests with careers and college choices whether you’ve taken a career planning test or not.

Before thinking about a career, though, you need to understand the different educational options available to you. I would like you to consider the difference between vocational education and non-vocational education. Vocational education provides specific training to do a specific job. If you pursue this kind of education, there’s no question about what job will follow, as your education is designed to prepare you to work in a specific industry. I’m not saying that people with a vocational education can’t do other jobs, just that their education is designed to prepare graduates for a specific job in a specific industry. Vocational education prepares students for careers in fields such as auto mechanics, engineering, architecture, medicine (doctors, nurses, radiology, etc.), accounting, education, and law. If you graduate with one of these degrees you’ll still need on-the-job training, but the degree itself gives you quite a bit of job training. That is what it is intended to do. A sure sign of a vocational degree, by the way, is that an internship or residency is a curriculum requirement in almost all schools that offer the degree.

Non-vocational degrees teach you a field of knowledge, and in the process develop valuable and specific knowledge and skill sets that are needed in many jobs, but they do not necessarily prepare you for any one specific job. Those who have graduated with one these degrees have been successful in many, many fields, but if you pursue this option you’ll have to learn how to sell yourself. Degrees in English, art, history, philosophy (and all the liberal arts), mathematics, and the hard sciences fall into this category. Non-vocational degrees can lead you to successful careers in the workforce, because most businesses believe that they can teach their employees the business, but they can’t teach them how to write, speak, work with people, or do math, which are skills students should have learned in college. Employers want students with strong communication skills (oral and written) as well as critical thinking and problem solving skills, and they say the same thing in survey after survey.

Some fields can fall into either vocational or non-vocational categories depending up their focus, such as business (but this is usually vocational), the human and social sciences, and communication (e.g. the academic study of communication vs. journalism, which is vocationally focused: by the way, journalism is a very bad idea right now).

So, how do you do the work of thinking through your career and educational choices?  First, know yourself. I’m going to guide you through a process of self-knowledge that will help you choose a major. And then after you’ve chosen a major, I will give you some criteria for choosing a college.

First, are you good with words or good with numbers? Words are what we use to understand people and ideas. Numbers are what we use to understand the behaviors of and relationships among things. Of course we use words to talk about things and numbers to talk about people too, but I’m talking about the primary language of interaction, what we use to acquire raw data about our subjects. The primary language of interaction with people and with ideas uses words, while the primary language of interaction with things (natural or mechanical) uses numbers. If you’re a words person, choose a major that involves people or ideas. If you’re a numbers person, choose a major that involves things. If you’re good at both, do whatever you want. You’ll be successful in any field. If you’re not good at either, I have a message for you below.

Another way to consider the words vs. numbers question is to break it up into questions about interests and skills:

  • Interests: are you most interested in people, in things, or in ideas?
  • Skills: are you best at working with your hands, working with words, or working with numbers?

Right now some of you are thinking, “I’m not good at anything, and I’m not interested in anything.” That’s not really true. Look at your grades since sixth grade. Is there a pattern? Who were your favorite teachers? What did they teach? What do you like doing? Do you have a favorite movie or book? What does the protagonist do? Why do you like it?

If none of these questions help, if your grades have been average or below average, and if you have no discernible interests, I suggest that you start in community college and pursue an A.A., as this degree is very inexpensive, will meet general education requirements needed in any college major, and is easily transferable: in most states all community college credits are fully transferable to any four-year college or university within the state system. You can take electives while pursuing your A.A. to explore different areas, and you’ll also have a range of two-year vocational degrees available to you (such as an A.S. degree).

Once you’re enrolled in a community college, you can talk to a career counselor, take the tests that I mentioned above, and consider vocational degrees in growing industries such as energy, the sciences, medicine, or computer technology. If you really have no particular interests or passions, then at least be mercenary in your career and educational choices: what will make you the most money with the least amount of student loan debt?

If you think that you have answers to some of my questions, though, start thinking through your answers. Maybe lay them out on a grid:

People Things Ideas
Hands
Words
Numbers

Check off the boxes that fit and see where you have the most checks.

  • Numbers+things? Engineering — the applied sciences.
  • Ideas+Words? English, philosophy, psychology, linguistics — the liberal arts and theoretical study in the human sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology.
  • People+ideas? History, communication, and the application-based study of the human sciences.
  • People+words or people +numbers? Management, communication, and the human sciences.
  • Numbers+ideas? Mathematics, computer science, and the hard sciences, especially theoretical study.
  • Hands+things? The fine arts and trades.

I think you get the picture. Most career tests will get you thinking along these lines. Note that these are all very broad fields with very different sub-fields within them. The most that I can do here is get you looking in one or two directions.

My basic assumption is that if you’re good at something, that’s probably because you enjoy it, or maybe you enjoy it because you’re good at it. I’d really like you to think about that assumption for a while if you think that you’re not good at anything, and ask yourself what you’ve been doing with your life so far.

In less polite terms: get off your butt and you might discover yourself.

Once you’ve chosen a major, you will then need to select a college. I’ve said it before, and I hate saying it, but it bears repeating: name recognition on the degree is more important, initially, than your actual skills and ability. The brand name of your college will help you get in the door. Your actual skills and abilities will then determine how well you perform, so those do matter too. Apply to the colleges and universities with the most reputable names in your chosen field. If you don’t know which these are, research. US News and World Report rankings are much hated but are at least reflective of name recognition and in fact generate name recognition. Find industry journals and look for articles on job placement. Visit a business and ask around.

Minors are smart. If you major in a non-vocational area, develop a secondary skill — take computer programming, web technologies, marketing, management, public relations. English and art majors who have learned a programming language and web technologies have highly valuable skill sets. And for the record, some of my former English majors have been told in interviews that they would be immediately hired if they had these secondary skills. Similarly, if you’re in the hard sciences, take additional humanities courses. Take creative courses too — learn to draw or write poetry. You need to remember that you’re not a machine, and odds are your specific area of study will impact human beings somehow, so you want to understand people in all of their diversity and creativity. Humanities courses will help you gain that understanding.

Once you’ve chosen a major and identified a few schools that are reputable in that field, consider the following measures to help you choose among them:

  • As mentioned above, US News and World report rankings.
  • The return on investment of the degree, or in other words, the cost of the college degree compared to the income its graduates earn a few years after graduation.
  • The college’s graduation rates — the higher the graduation rate, the better the student body and your chances as well. Don’t be too put off by a significant difference between four and six year graduation rates as some majors require extra time. Education majors at my current institution essentially double major in education and an academic field, so it’s very hard for them to graduate in four years, and they have to do so to meet state requirements.
  • The college’s student loan default rates — which is a good sign of student success after graduation.

Notice that I’m not talking about jobs in fields like like sports, music,  film, or theater (the performing arts). These are large industries encompassing a variety of jobs, including (sports) medicine, marketing, management, a variety of technical jobs, and more. If you’re interested in these fields, there are plenty of ways in. But of course everyone wants to be a rock star, a movie star, or a pro sports player. Let me give you some numbers about pro football that probably illustrate the dynamic in all of these fields. There are about 200-300 athletes drafted into the NFL every year (253 in 2012). Theoretically, competing for those spots are 85 players for each one of 242 NCAA Division 1 teams, or 20,570 players, not counting Division II or III players or free agents (of course, not all 20,000+ apply to the draft, but all 20,000+ theoretically could).

I can’t tell you that you won’t make it as a pro football player or a rock star, but I can say that the 1% who do make it have a very rare mix of luck and talent, part of which includes not getting injured (the Shmoop career guide works the numbers in more detail and comes up with about 7% for college seniors — but it’s hard to know how many free agents or underclassmen are trying out). If you’re going to college solely to play football, in terms of averages you’re taking chances almost equivalent to spending $140,000 (or the cost of a college education at an average four-year private institution) on lottery tickets in a single week. Sounds like great odds, but they’re still about 100 to 1 or a little bit better. In other words, if you’re going to college just to play ball and not get an education, you may as well spend your tuition money on lottery tickets. So play football or any other sport in college and love every minute of it, but take class seriously too.

Next — and I’m asking you to think way ahead here — will you be interested in graduate school? Does your undergraduate institution also have graduate programs in that area? Check the institution’s website to see what percentage of students go on to graduate school, and consider your undergraduate degree in terms of the viability of pursuing graduate study in that field too. Master’s degrees are always good choices, but Ph.Ds. in the humanities and human sciences as well as law school have a strong likelihood for high student loan debt and low employability.

So, to review the process:

  1. Identify your interests (people, ideas, things) and your skills (hands, words, numbers).
  2. Match these interests to a major.
  3. Identify the most reputable colleges for that major. Pick three or four or five.
  4. Choose among those by comparing graduation rates, student loan default rates, return on investment, and rankings.

After thinking all of this through, then I’d like to return you to that first article I linked to, the one that I picked at a bit for being obvious. It still asks important questions: who do you want to be? How do you want to live? Human beings aren’t machines: we need more than physical and financial support to live whole and entire lives. Think about the Vonnegut quotation posted up above too. If you’re inspired by your field of study, you will be inspiring to people who will recommend you for jobs or advanced study and to your employers. Remember, no matter what you choose — even if you do not choose — what happens is the result of your choices.

Other useful resources: