No, most students don't pick "useless" majors

There's a stereotype that students pick "useless" majors—and then complain that they can't find jobs, Michelle Cheng writes for FiveThirtyEight.

But, she argues, students at most schools—and the students who are most motivated by career prospects—tend to choose practical majors with a clear career path.

Ultimately, students have their own goals in mind when it comes to which college they attend, which major(s) they decide to pursue, and whether to attend college at all, Cheng writes.

For example, students who come from higher-income families may pursue college as strictly a means to study what they enjoy, Cheng reports. However, students from lower-income families may see college as a vehicle through which they can improve their prospects and make their way into the middle class, she writes.

Double the major, double the income? One combo pays off best

According to Cheng, data from the Department of Education and Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University shows that students who attend elite institutions are far more likely to major in a humanities, arts, or social science subject than students who attend less selective institutions, writes Cheng.

Another difference is that students who attend highly selective institutions are also more likely to plan on going to graduate school. Cheng proposes that this could contribute to their willingness to major in fields without a direct career path, because they can pick up more training and skills while in grad school.

But most students don't attend highly selective institutions, Cheng notes. In 2016, FiveThirtyEight reported that just 4% of U.S. students attend colleges that accept less than 25% of applicants. The vast majority—more than 75%—of students attend institutions that accept 50% of more of their applicants.

These students at less selective institutions tend to pick practical majors with clear career paths, Cheng writes. The most popular category of majors at less selective institutions is business, management, marketing, and related support services. Recent grads with this major have a median annual salary of $37,000, which Cheng reports is a little higher than the median salary for recent grads of all majors.

Furthermore, less than a quarter of business majors go on to grad school. They tend to land in career fields where graduate degrees aren't necessary, "which is probably a lot of reasons why people study it in the first place," says Brad Hershbein, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

What major switching can tell us about student outcomes

A disproportionate number of students at less selective institutions also choose to major in health professions and related programs—the second most common category of majors at those schools. The health care field has been noted for a few years now as an industry that offers bright salary and employment outlooks (Cheng, FiveThirtyEight, 8/14; Casselman, FiveThirtyEight, 3/30/16).


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