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Ponnada: Your major isn't everything

BY SRI PONNADA | SEPTEMBER 16, 2013 5:00 AM

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I remember when I was a senior in high-school doing college applications, all were stressed out about where they’d end up for the next four years. But now, when it comes to one’s studies, it seems that it’s not the “where?” that students should be worried about but the “what?”

According to a recent study in five U.S. states, what students study in college has more effect on their future earnings than where they go to school.

The study, conducted by College Measures — a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving U.S. higher education and providing parents and students with the necessary information to make informed choices — found that students who majored in music, philosophy, photography, and liberal arts generally had the lowest average salaries. Health-science majors, particularly nursing, had the highest pay, followed by business majors.

The report was based on data from Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. It examined the effect of what schools students attended, their majors, and what types of degrees they received. The study adds even more gravity to the battle between earning potential and “doing what you love.”

For students who want to pursue careers in fields that tend to be less lucrative, the tradeoff between “making lots of money” and “doing what you love” definitely exists, but it may not be as consequential or long-lasting as people think.

Despite the findings of the College Measures study, there may still be hope for English and other liberal-arts majors. A study released in 2009 by PayScale Inc., which surveyed 1.2 million people across America, showed that while graduates with certain majors may benefit from higher starting salaries, wages generally even out after 10 to 15 years of work experience.

These data are proof that your college major alone won’t determine where you end up in life, because virtually every major has high earning potential in the long-term.

I guess the question really boils down to: “What do you value?”

University of Iowa graduate student Katherine Nesbit says she values her passion for literature over wealth.

“I don’t need to have a lot of extra money,” she said. “Having a lot of extra money is not a value of mine.”

As a first-year student pursuing a graduate degree in English, Nesbit said, she is often asked, “Why?”

“I think that a lot of people get this question if they do go into fields that aren’t as lucrative,” she said.

Whereas she may not make as much money with her English degree as, say, a neuroscientist, she said, she doesn’t foresee herself being “extremely poor.”

“I am confident that I will be able to (in some way) provide for myself even if my ideal job doesn’t go through,” Nesbit said. “I don’t feel like I am submitting myself to decades of poverty.”

And she may have the right idea. A college major isn’t necessarily a direct path to a certain career — or income-tax bracket. More importantly, initial salaries — however “low” they might be — are still higher than they are for individuals without college degrees.

“It always stems back to what kind of work satisfies you,” Nesbit said. “At the end of the day, do you feel like it fed you in some way? (Which is kind of a romantic way to think of it.) And if it’s something where you don’t make that much money, you’ll make it work.”


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