College Majors and Cash: Follow the Money or Your Dreams?

If engineering majors make almost twice what the average liberal arts major earns, should everybody just become engineers?

When you look at your paycheck do you wonder if you picked the wrong major in college? A new study from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce says that not only do science, math, and engineering majors earn more right after college than grads with humanities degrees, they also earn heftier salaries over the long haul. With the high cost of college and total student loan debt surpassing total credit card debt for the first time in history, this raises the question: Should students pass on majoring in something that truly interests them and instead go for the degrees that make money?

If you say no, think about this: An engineering grad's median salary of $75,000 is almost twice as much as the $42,000 an education or psychology major earns. And, all the critical thinking skills you've acquired over four years as an English major might not feel too valuable when you're only making a median salary of $47,000, if you can find a job at all. Indeed, it sounds like terrible advice to tell a student to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a counseling psychology degree when she's only going to earn $29,000—especially when she could become a petroleum engineer and pull down $120,000.

The problem with this line of thinking is that people don't pick jobs solely on the basis of how much they'll make. Some of us have never wanted to work as a petroleum engineer. And professional athletes make a lot more than petroleum engineers anyway, but not everyone has the ability to make a career out of playing basketball. A person's interests, values, and abilities factor in really heavily when it comes to choosing a college major and a career.

Indeed, David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, told the Washington Post that correlations between salaries and what someone majors in are dangerous. He warns that “Parents should be very careful about pushing their kids in directions that are not right for them.” And, Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities says that a comprehensive liberal arts education is in demand around the world, noting that “Asian universities and Middle Eastern leaders are trying to import it.”

There's nothing wrong with being practical about your life, and there’s certainly no nobility in being broke, but looking at education and career choices solely through a material lens is shortsighted. The counseling psychology and early childhood education majors might not always earn much, but their work will improve others’ mental health and help kids learn. Having a profession that feels truly valuable has rewards that can outweigh a low median salary.

Instead of focusing on the majors that pay the most, maybe we should ask why some some of the most important professions, like teaching and counseling, aren't valued more in our economy. If jobs in those fields paid a competitive wage, maybe some of the grads going into business or engineering for the money could follow their dreams without feeling financially irresponsible.

photo (cc) via Flickr user SMBCollege

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