6 myths about college majors

Choosing a major can feel like a high-pressure decision, but many prospective and current undergraduates are ill-equipped to make the right choice, Jeffery Selingo writes for the New York Times.

When choosing a field of study, more than half of students turn to their social circle, and most don't find the advice particularly helpful, according to a survey by Gallup.

Selingo rounds up popular misconceptions about college majors that may deter students from choosing the major that's right for them.

Myth 1: STEM is the only path to high earnings

Most salary rankings don't take into account how much variation there can be for salaries within individual majors, Selingo points out. When looking at the data in a different way, it turns out that graduates in stereotypically low-paying fields earn as much in their lifetimes as those in high-paying fields, he reports.

For example, the top quarter of English major graduates earn more in their lifetime than the bottom quarter of chemical engineers, according to a report by Douglas Webber, an associate economics professor at Temple University.

Also see: How one university redesigned their English program to meet student demand

Myth 2: The increase in female students will shrink the gender pay gap

Not exactly. To narrow the gender pay gap, the proportion of female graduates in specific, male-dominated majors must increase by 10%, says Anthony Carnevale, director at the Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

While female undergraduates make up more than half of the students enrolled this fall, women tend to choose lower-paying fields like education, according to a forthcoming report by Georgetown's center. The highest-paying majors, like mechanical engineering, are still dominated by men, Carnevale adds.

Myth 3: Students choose useless majors

A larger number of students at more-selective colleges study notoriously low-paying majors, like arts and the humanities, whereas more than half of students at less-selective schools study a career-focused major, finds an analysis by FiveThirtyEight

According to Carnevale, students at selective colleges likely have more freedom to explore their academic interests because they can lean on well-connected classmates and alumni to land a job.

Related: Help first-generation students establish confidence in professional interactions

Myth 4: Liberal arts majors won't find a job

The soft skills like writing and problem solving cultivated by a liberal arts education are in high demand by employers, Selingo writes. In fact, soft skills are the most common skill deficit among applicants, according to a survey of senior-level executives by Adecco Staffing US.

While it can be difficult for liberal arts graduates to land their first job, students who learn a technical skill, like data analysis, greatly improve their chances of landing an entry-level position, according to a study by Burning Glass Technologies.

Myth 5: Students should choose a major early

Students who finalize their major later in college are actually more likely to graduate than those who settle on a major right away, according to a study from EAB.

Georgia State University (GSU) has succeeded in keeping students engaged on the path to timely graduation with meta-majors, or groups of courses within a general field of study. The meta-majors structure helps students navigate the differences within an academic discipline to choose their major from an informed perspective, says Timothy Renick, the vice president for enrollment management at GSU.

5 steps to building a co-curricular major map

Myth 6: Students need a major

Majors can be restrictive, argues Christine Ortiz, a dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who's designing a university that will have no majors.

And as majors don't usually reflect current workforce trends, it shouldn't come as a surprise that more than two-thirds of graduates work outside their field of study, Selingo adds (Selingo, New York Times, 11/8).


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