This post was originally published by WestEd’s Center for Economic Mobility.
In the wake of news stories and polls questioning whether college is worth the cost, entities like the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching are seeking to quantify which institutions and majors provide a reasonable return on investment. While the methodology is becoming more sophisticated, the drive to identify “good majors” is not new. We are all familiar with the trope of young people arguing with their parents about wanting to pursue a passion for philosophy or music rather than a sensible degree like business. But is business really the best major to choose?
One way to answer this question is to examine the empirical relationship between school and work. Every year, the U.S. Census conducts the American Community Survey, which captures information on the subjects in which people earned bachelor’s degrees, the types of jobs they get, and salaries over time. WestEd’s Center for Economic Mobility made this information more accessible by creating the California Occupations by Bachelor’s Degree dashboard, which allows you to see the most common jobs for specific majors as well as the majors that are most common for specific jobs.
If you select psychology majors—one of the most prevalent bachelor’s degree disciplines—you will see many jobs that you would expect, such as social worker and therapist. But you will also see that graduates are just as likely to be managers as they are counselors. This outcome makes sense if you know the content of the curriculum. Because psychology majors study human behavior and motivations, they learn skills that are prized in supervisors. However, if a student expresses an interest in a leadership role in a company, they are much more likely to be directed toward a business degree.
In fact, business degrees may not be the best option for students who are more interested in building their people skills than in mastering the general ledger. Many business degrees are heavily focused on numbers. For example, students often take courses in general accounting principles, microeconomics, and the IT systems that support budgeting or tracking accounts receivable. A student who is focused on the relationship management aspects of running a business might question the value of the courses in their major and instead find themselves drawn to psychology, communications, or English classes—all of which teach skills of direct relevance for their desired job.
Similarly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors are often touted as being a direct route to gainful employment. However, the market for STEM skills varies considerably by region. According to the California Occupations by Bachelor’s Degree dashboard, outcomes for science and math majors in the Inland Empire, a predominantly rural region in California, indicate that 3 of the top 10 occupations are K–12 teaching positions, and another common job outcome is chronic unemployment. Other common jobs for science and math majors are similar to those for social sciences majors in the region, including administrative assistant and first-line supervisor for retail.
Another challenge with assessing the value of specific majors is that some jobs, such as welding and truck driving, provide strong wages immediately, but earnings are unlikely to increase over time. Other disciplines, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, may take 10 years to yield similar salaries but continue to show wage growth over several decades.
Given the rapidly evolving work environment and employer interest in skills-based hiring, it may be less important which majors students pick. Instead, it will be increasingly important for colleges to provide opportunities for students to apply content learned in any discipline to job settings and to ensure students can explain the relevance of the knowledge they have to the positions they desire to hold.
Check out WestEd’s dashboard that shows the relationship between majors and jobs, or watch this video that describes ways to engage students in selecting a major that addresses both their interests and their economic imperatives.
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