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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