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.

An Open Letter to High School Graduates…


Dear 17 or 18 year old, or maybe 19 year old or even early 20something:

I’m not really writing to you. I’m writing to myself when I was 17. But I’m letting you listen, because I think many of you feel the same way. So,

Dear 17 year old me:

Right now you feel like you’re on the edge of a plank and about to be pushed off. And maybe you don’t want to be pushed out there yet. You’re certainly not ready yet.

So what are you going to do? Go to college? Work? I know for a fact that you hate school. You have hated it since you left Mrs. White’s class in the 3rd grade. Yes, you still think she’s the greatest.

Pink Floyd’s The Wall was released the year I graduated high school. And yes, I loved the band and Roger Waters for showing the world exactly what I was feeling about school at the time:

Needless to say, my theme song the day after graduation was

It’s not that you’re not smart. You love to read. You love not just literature, but science and a whole bunch of other things. You like seeing what you can do with a chemistry set. You do dangerous things. You read everything. You read comic books and westerns, yes. But you’re also reading Shakespeare (unabridged), Plato, Aristotle, and Orwell, and have been since you were about fourteen. That’s why you wrote the best essay on Hamlet that your teacher had read in quite some time, and why you scored the highest on the biology final exam out of all students in the school, even higher than the gifted kids.

But you hate school. You hate it. That’s why you’re smart but have a GPA just over 2.9. You can’t stand the thought of four more years in a classroom. You want to get outside and do stuff. You want to learn to play guitar. You feel better about doing work with your hands than you do sitting in a classroom. You want to surf. The idea of four more years in a classroom is repulsive.

But what’s worst of all is that you feel that whatever decision you make now you’re making for the rest of your life. If you go to college now and choose a major, that’s it for the rest of your life. Your major is your life. If you don’t go to college and do something else, that’s it for the rest of your life. It’s the finality of it all that really gets to you, especially when all that you want to do is live on a tropical island with a really hot girl, play guitar, and hang out with your friend Marty and his girlfriend.

Now let me tell you what I’ve learned 33 years down the road.

It’s not that I’m smarter than you, or smarter than any other 17 year old. It’s just that I’ve seen how things happen, and what happened with you, so I can tell you about what I’ve seen, not about some inherent inner knowledge that’s superior to yours somehow (it isn’t).

First off, it’s only partly true that what you decide now will affect the rest of your life. That’s true, but not in the way you think, not in some kind of “you’re stuck in a box now” kind of way. Yes, it is true that every step you take is a step forward in some direction. But do you see what I just said? Every step you take. Your choices now will lead you down a path, but that path can be changed or altered at any point. The choices that really feel irrevocable are marriage and having children, because those choices involve other people, people that you care about.

So just watch how young you are when you get married and when you have kids, and don’t worry about the rest of your choices. No matter when you have kids, they’ll still be the best thing to ever happen to you, but you want to make sure that you’re ready — mostly for their sake.

You want to think about earning money and what it means. A lot of people these days talk about “return on investment” — while you’re in college, you pay tuition and other costs to attend college, and mostly forgo whatever income you may have earned by working instead. So you need to think about those total costs in terms of your future income potential.

But remember the best job you can get right out of high school pays badly — it’ll be entry level construction, retail, or food service, or something like that. So the income you lose right out of high school, even four years out of high school, won’t be that big a deal. But the longer you put off going to college, the worse the loss will be down the road, and people who don’t go to college usually make a lot less money than those who do… with a few exceptions. That means the best thing is to start college as soon after high school graduation as possible. Take a year off if you have to. Take two. But try not to wait too long.

So if it feels right now like I’m trying to talk you into college, maybe I am. But I know how you feel, so I know there’s no way I’ll be able to talk you into it, and it won’t work for you until you really want it anyhow. I’d like you to think about something, though: I’m you way down the road, and I have a Ph.D., and I teach college, so I changed my mind about it, especially after working as an electrician for a few years.

Yes, I was a good electrician. I was decent with my hands and, of course, I knew what I was doing. But regardless of how I was feeling about working outside, it was never who I was.

See, you need to understand that college isn’t high school. The first year might be too much like it, but it gets increasingly more interesting. You want to think of your mind as something like a big switchboard with a bunch of lights turned off. Every time you experience something new, a switch can turn on. If you think about it, this even happened sometimes in high school. Switches can get turned on and off just in daily life, but if you stick to what you like and know and follow your daily routine, you’ll leave most of your switches off. Travel turns on switches. New relationships turn on switches. Reading anything at all can turn on switches. But when you finally do go to college, though, you’ll experience a lot of different things, and learn a lot of different things, and you’ll find that more of your mind lights up a lot faster than you thought it could.

What you’ll discover is that college is really a playground for your talents and for your mind. It’s not about what you do for them, whoever they are. It’ll be something that you’re doing for yourself. And that’s something you want to start doing as soon as you can. I don’t mean to rush you. Wait for college, for marriage, and for children until you’re ready. Just don’t wait longer than you have to when it comes to college. Going to college, when I finally got there, was something like this for me…

And oh yeah, all that reading you do before you actually start college? Those thousands and thousands of pages? That was great. Keep it up.

That whole island thing still sounds pretty cool, by the way, and you’re still friends with Marty. . .

–Your Older Self

Should you go to college at all?

Most of my posts about higher ed. are directed toward people who are planning to go to college. What about those on the fence? Should you go to college at all?

The quick answer is, if you can do it debt free, do it. Do it and pursue your love. And I would say this on all levels, from two year degrees to Ph.D.s. If what you love isn’t practical or doesn’t provide a clear job path for you, or if it’s creative and if, in this field, being successful is like a small lottery win — still do what you love. If you can go to college debt free, or with very minimal debt, you have more to lose by not pursuing your love than by chasing it.

Now of course you need to worry about employability. One problem with higher ed. right now is perhaps best illustrated by the embedded table.

GRE Scores by Major
From the report “Educating School Leaders” by Arthur Levine, 2005. Click the image to go to the report.

This table lists the top scores on the GRE (Graduate Records Examination) by major. The GRE is typically taken by college students near graduation to qualify them for graduate study at different institutions. You can think of it like an SAT or ACT for graduate school. It measures students (or used to) in three areas: Verbal, Quantitative (math), and Analytical (logic). The table to the left is arranged in the order of who gets the highest analytical scores. Can you guess? No, not science or philosophy majors. English majors score the highest on both the analytical and the verbal sections of the GRE, followed by, in order, Religion, Physics, and American History.

Now of the top four highest scoring majors, only one of them seems to hold the promise of any kind of certain employment. So the situation seems to be that the majors that are the least practical offer the highest potential for cognitive and creative self development, but somewhat lower potential for income and employment. Which is unfortunate, because of all of the people who might walk into any office to be interviewed for a job, the most intellectually capable will usually be liberal arts majors. They can think the clearest and the fastest and can learn the quickest.

The reasons for this are simple: liberal arts majors, and especially English and history majors, read the most and write the most. So do religion majors (religion is just the study of a different set of literatures). At my institution, typical English majors will read perhaps 20,000 pages or more and write about 2,000 pages or more over the course of their study.

But the problem is, employers don’t know this, and they don’t know what to do with them. What we have is a massive disconnect, then: employers don’t know how college educations work and what they produce, and neither do they seem to know how to match employees with jobs if their education isn’t specifically vocational. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, don’t know how to sell their majors to employers. So it seems that the safe thing to do is to pursue a major that clearly matches a job, and then to get the job that your degree has prepared you for.

But no, that’s not the safe thing. A highly vocational education prepares you for a very limited range of jobs, and if you hate that one job that you’re educated to do, you’ll find yourself either working a job that you hate, or going and doing something else and feeling that your college education was a massive waste of time and money. And if the industry changes, or rather when the industry changes, every time the industry changes (and it will), you will have to educate yourself again. Education never is a waste of time or money, of course: it always develops you. That is an investment that never goes away. Even if you don’t use your specific skill sets, you have developed cognitively in ways you may not even know. But you still don’t want to be found in this situation.

But that brings me back to my first point: if you go to college, pursue the things that you love. If you devote your time studying what you love, you will never regret that time spent, and it will develop you in ways you never before considered possible. But as you major in what you love, minor in something that employers recognize: marketing, PR, management, finance, coding (.html, .xml, .php, flash, java). . . there’s a wide range. I would advise all English majors to learn a programming language and web technologies. I would extend that advice to all liberal arts majors.

I have not yet made it to the central question, though: should you go to college at all? I have known many capable, intelligent, and yes educated people who have never gone to college and have done well for themselves. These people are, however, in every sense of the word, exceptional. You also probably don’t need to go to college to play pro football, basketball, baseball, or if you’re very good at making money and selling, or if you have a marketable skill and a good head for business, or if you win the lottery, but most people can’t count on any of these things.

The numbers are out there. As poorly as the job market is performing for college grads, it’s performing even worse for those without a college education. Except in very rare cases, employers won’t consider your application unless you have at least a bachelor’s degree, and if you get a job, you will only go so far unless you have a Master’s degree.

So if you can go to college, go to college. It’s still the smartest choice. But as I’ve been saying, study what you love, get a vocationally oriented minor, and go to school as close to debt free as possible.

How can you go to school debt free? Attend a state school. They’re cheaper. Start at a community college and transfer in state — that’s even cheaper. I had a student today describe in class students who take out student loans so they can party during Spring break: okay, don’t do that. I had friends in high school who worked Alaskan fishing boats over the summer, made a lot of money, and then used it to pay for college during the year. And most importantly, go before you get married, and especially before you have children.

Do you need to go to college to be educated? No, of course not. I didn’t start college until I was 23, and by that time I had done more reading on my own than I was required to do for my college classes. I only went to college because, I thought, if I’m going to do all of this reading and writing I may as well earn a degree with it. So I know what it’s like to be self educated, and I also know what it’s like to go through an educational system (I have a Ph.D. in English). The only thing you need to get educated is enough of an education to get you started, a willingness to work hard, and a library. The advantages of a college education, however, are that your knowledge is structured, that you have some guidance and confidence in your knowledge, that you have credentials, and that you’re learning with other people, which makes the educational experience that much more intense, rewarding, and meaningful. And perhaps most importantly of all: you have a sense of what other people know. You know what knowledge to take for granted. That’s part of being socialized into the knowledge that you gain, and you learn not just a bunch of information, but how to arrange that information — you learn what’s more important and what is less important.

Ultimately, what will matter is what you can do. There are plenty of useless people out there with degrees, and the people I know working at the highest levels care about what you really know and what you can really do, not so much about your credentials. Credentials are just a way to weed out people less likely to perform — they are a way for the people holding the keys to the doors to hedge their bets. But credentials are no guarantee, and too many people waste their time in college, squeak by in their classes doing minimal work, and graduate almost as useless as when they went in, usually after taking some kind of vocationally-oriented major.

How do you avoid being one of these useless, credentialed people? Study what you love.

Addenda: I have to add this after reading an early comment (below). There are many two year degrees offered through community colleges that are vocationally oriented and lead to good paying jobs. Again, your training will be very narrow, as will be your skill set, but some of these jobs pay better than most four year grads make right out of college. This may be an option if you don’t know what you love, or if you know that what you really love will never be something you can do for money. But you will find if you choose this path that you will peak early in your career unless you finish a B.A. and Master’s degree, so the upper end of your earning potential — at least as far as your degree will take you — will be limited compared to those with more education.

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.