Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist, historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Suddenly, my college campus feels almost normal. Yes, we all know the pandemic lurks around every corner, but for the first time since January 2020, a semester is beginning and it feels pretty good – with students, their families, faculty and staff bustling about.
Weighing on the newest students, as they proceed through orientations and into their first classes, is a choice: What are they going to major in?
In an ideal world, students would have lots of time to figure out their direction. They would try a bunch of courses, figure out what interests them and just spend some time learning for the sake of learning. But we’ve never really lived in that ideal, and the crises of the last decade and more – first the Great Recession, now the pandemic – have only intensified the pressure on college undergraduates to make the “right choice.”
My advice is this: It’s better to thrive in a major that you love than to chase a bigger paycheck. You’ll be happier, but also you’ll make more money as a top graduate in any field than you will as a mediocre graduate of something you think might be more lucrative. And best of all, the data backs up my advice.
I’m the undergraduate adviser for history majors and minors at the University of Minnesota. Recruiting and supporting students who want to study history is literally my job, and the news these days isn’t great for humanists like me. According to a new survey from the Federal Reserve, almost half of all arts and humanities majors are worried that they made the wrong choice.
I’m worried about how this data will be used to accelerate a decades-long trend of defunding and abandoning the humanities, as politicians and university presidents – as well as students and parents – misconstrue the message. The value of the humanities vastly outstrips the financial “return on investment” that’s the latest trend in how to assess a college education. But even if we focus on money, which makes sense given the costs involved, we need to be much clearer about how we are counting those returns.
There is a hierarchy of majors when it comes to assessing the likely lifetime earnings of the strongest students. The Federal Reserve data is clear, for example, that engineers make a lot more than the rest of us, though their survey also shows a quarter of all engineers also have regrets about their major. (Maybe it’s fair to assume that many 20-year-olds have an understandably hard time planning for the rest of their lives?)
But here’s the problem I see again and again: Too many undergraduates choose a major they think will lead to a good job instead of one that actually captures their interest. As a result, they struggle. They get worse grades. They aren’t happy. And if we dig into the Federal Reserve data, we can even see that it’s the wrong financial decision.
This is what I call the 75/25 problem. Let me explain.
It’s far better, from a financial viewpoint, to be in the 75th percentile of a “lower-expected earning” major than in the 25th percentile of a higher one. For example, according to an analysis of the Fed survey by the Washington Post, who adjusted 2016 dollars for today’s inflation, the lifetime earnings of an accounting major average out at $3.98 million, with the top 25% expected to earn $4.9 million and the bottom 25% down at $3.22 million. History, and this is typical of the humanities, averages lower at $3.37 million, but its top 25% are expected to earn $4.22 million. Sure, an elite accounting major does better than an elite history major, but an elite history major does better than an average accountant.
There are some people who can do their best work even on topics and tasks that they’re not enthusiastic about. But that’s not typical, as I’ve found in my decades as an educator, and it definitely wasn’t true for me. I was an “A” student in History, mostly. (I’m still bitter about that one professor who gave me a B+ in European history; I showed him by becoming a historian of Europe.) I did well because I liked it. I did the readings, worked hard on my assignments and spent time away from class thinking about what we were learning.
My grades in math were, let’s say, somewhat lower, not just because math was hard but because I didn’t want to do it. I either skipped or rushed through assignments, got bored in class and didn’t care. Had I tried to become an accountant, I would have been a bad one, stuck in that bottom 25th percentile.
I’ve long argued that making college free, or at least a lot cheaper, is the quickest path to enabling undergraduates to feel confident studying what they want to study. Debt relief is a good start, but it doesn’t help the students of tomorrow.
A less expensive education might let us concentrate on all the benefits beyond job training. At its best, higher education prepares young people to become citizens of the world and lifelong learners who are ready to adapt to the challenges of a complex future. And, especially in the face of the massive mental health challenges students are facing today – like so many of us, they are not OK in the wake of the last few years – prioritizing happiness might make for a better college experience.
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But I’m also a realist. Even if college were cheaper, jobs would still matter. Paychecks would still matter. People go to college to get ahead. And while the data may discourage people like me, because our enrollment and major numbers are falling, a big piece of the reality is reassuring: Students who thrive in our programs are likely to do well professionally.
So if you chose a major for the job you thought you’d get right out of college, and you’re loving your STEM or business courses, that’s great. But if you’re struggling, especially if it’s a path you chose because your parents wanted you to be practical, maybe take another look around. Try to remember the last time you really enjoyed a class, where you did the reading because you wanted to, not because someone told you it was required. Follow your interests, hit that 75th percentile, and the rest will hopefully follow.