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How to Choose the Best College Major

You hear it everywhere: “A college degree is more important than ever.” Everyone knows that college graduates earn more than those who just made it through high school. After World War II, the American job market grew along with the economy, and so did the advantages of a college education. The cost of college was a great investment. Now that is no longer necessarily true.

A few years ago, research firm PayScale calculated that a college degree produced about a 7% return on investment, about the same long-term return as the stock market. A survey they conducted in 2012 for Businessweek showed that graduating from some elite colleges produced a return of more than 10%. However graduating from many colleges produced a negative return. In his new book, “Will College Pay Off?”, Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli writes, “The big news about the payoff from college should be the incredible variation in it across colleges.” “Looking at the actual return on the costs of attending college, careful analysis suggest that the payoff from many college programs–as much as one in four-is actually negative.”

Since the mid-90s, the experts have claimed that liberal arts degrees were a waste of time and money. You needed to major in a STEM specialty (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) to get ahead. But now the equation has changed. Cappelli calculates that only about one fifth of recent STEM graduates will get a job in their field of study.

Given all this, what can you do to have an exceptional career?

  1. Keep your options open until you can make a clear, informed choice.
  2. Make a choice that fits your talents, personality and values. This is the best guarantee of success and that you will love your work (and your life). After all, this is probably the only life you have. Don’t waste it.
  3. Pick a career that will provide intrinsic (inner) satisfaction as well as extrinsic (external rewards). Many years ago, when I regularly visited friends studying at Harvard, I was amazed how broad and deep their passions and interests ran. They sought a wide range of careers. Now I hear that the most Harvard undergraduates hope to become investment bankers. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but still, many are making life choices that will not necessarily lead to fulfillment. Or, as Steve Jobs said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do”.
  4. If you are going to go to college, plan on a graduate degree for most specialties. In 1960 only about 10% of Americans had a college degree. Now seventy percent of high school graduates go to college. You may need a 4-year degree just to get a job that once required only a high school degree.
  5. Private educational loans have enslaved hundreds of thousands of young people in perpetual debt. If you doubt this, just talk with a few twenty-five-year-olds. Don’t help elect anyone who does not take a strong stand for education finance reform. Public education should be free, the same as it is in most advanced European countries. 
  6. Major technology companies have added to their focus of competing for top engineers and technicians. They are now competing for talented people to lead and manage. They want smart young people with business and liberal arts degrees. The long-maligned liberal arts degree is making a comeback.
  7. Once again, the bottom-line is: pick a career direction where you will be exceptional.

 Some of this blog entry is rewritten from a great article by John Cassidy in the September 7, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. Get it. Read it. It is powerful and important.


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Years ago when I stopped smoking I used a technique psychologists call precommitment. I knew that the little voice in my head could easily talk me into just having one. And down the slippery slope I would slide. I made a deal with a friend who wanted to quit as well. We each wrote out checks for hundreds of dollars to the re-election committee of our biggest political nightmare. (We both picked Jesse Helms.) We switched envelopes, stamped, addressed, and ready to go. Then once a week we met, looked each other face-to-face and said whether or not we had kept our promise. If one of us caught the slightest flicker of lie in the other’s eyes, they would mail the envelope. There were times when I would have paid that much money for a cigarette, but knowing it would go to help re-elect Helms kept me on the straight and narrow.

The idea is to make it nearly impossible to crap out on your promise. Odysseus ordered himself lashed to the mast and had his seamen fill their ears with wax so he could listen to the deadly, seductive songs of the Sirens.

What is that huge challenge you want to face that you think your mind will con you out of fulfilling? What is that behavior or habit you want to change?

Find a cost you are not willing to pay and someone to play this powerful game with you.