The Lamp

A Holderness School journal committed to critical reflection and fostering conversation around issues connected to independent schools and education in general.

A Major Decision: What Do I Want to Study in College?

Bruce Barton, Director of College Counseling


When I entered college in the fall of 1978, the last thing on my mind was “what am I going to major in?”  I don’t remember ever having a conversation about it with my parents or siblings.  To be honest, I’m not sure I had given it any thought at all; I was 17 years old—what did I know about such important matters?  The subject came up some once I started college, of course, and I can remember being told by some fraternity brothers that “asking about their major” is the easiest way possible to get a conversation going with a girl.  So, for some time, my focus was on the social – dare I say romantic – angle of picking a subject to major in.  As the winter of my 2nd year rolled along, I remember picking up the college catalogue (remember those?) and flipping through it.  In the section about majors, I still recall this exact line: “For some, the college major is nothing more than a passing interest in the spring of their sophomore year.”  Bang!  That was me, and off I went into a Religion and Philosophy major because I liked the subject matter and really liked the professors in the Religion Department at my small college in upstate NY.  How very romantic that all looks and feels some 35 years later.


I think it would be hard to find a student in 2016 who would take a similar route to mine.  Nor can I imagine that any college today would dare to be so thoroughly innocent (some might even say naïve) in its approach to selecting a college major.  Given the economic downturn of 2008 and the ever rising costs of colleges, picking a major has become a primary focus for students and parents.  Articles around which majors afford the best jobs and the highest salaries are regular, if not seasonal, events in business magazines, blogs and newspapers around the country and world.  Just try a quick internet search using “college majors and jobs” as your subject heading.  The tone of these articles can perhaps best be summed up in two words: be careful.  Such is the case in the second sentence of an article written by Melissa Korn (5-7-2015) in the Wall Street Journal.  How far that feels from my experience referenced above.  


I will not spend time either bemoaning or trumpeting this evolution; the fact is, here we are.  And, the results of a great deal of research on the subject will hardly shake the world to its core.  For example, it will come as little surprise that students majoring in engineering (let’s say a Biomedical Engineer) are projected to earn more than three times as much, over a career, as someone who majors in education (let’s say an Elementary Education teacher).  Ms. Korn cites that statistic early on in her article too.  However, what is worth noting are some trends that help sharpen the focus on the shifts occurring in this landscape for both colleges and students, and to look ahead to see what the next evolution in this area may be.  


 First, the number of potential majors is growing rapidly.  As the world – particularly employment world – changes, college curriculum changes in response.  So, studies in things like Homeland Security, cyberforensics, and data collection and management have come on board within the last 10 years.   I would have needed a vivid imagination in 1980 to have even contemplated such majors.  There are some colleges and universities who offer close to 300 majors from which to select.  Go visit the webpages of a school like Arizona State University or the University of Texas and click on “Majors and Concentrations” – just make sure you have the free time to really cover it – it can take a while.  And, there are colleges and universities which say from the start, create your own major.  These include progressive schools like Hampshire and Warren Wilson but also more mainstream places like the University of Washington and Franklin & Marshall College.


Second, the number of students double (and even triple) majoring in college is on the rise too.  It was a rare thing, back in my day, for someone to double major.  I remember thinking, wow, she must be mega smart.  Triple major – never heard of it.  Between 2001 and 2011, the number of degrees awarded with double majors rose 70% (NY Times, Cecilia Simon, 11-2-2012).  My son started talking about a double major in the first months after his college career began.  And when I asked him how many other students were considering a double major he responded, “almost everybody I talk to.”  Clearly, some of this grows from a deep uncertainty about where the job market will be and the obvious value of being “multi-talented.”   However, it also comes from a vast oasis of choices the likes of which students have never seen before.  Students are very familiar with the term “transferable skills” these days.

Most employers are looking for transferable skills — the ability to problem solve, work in teams, write and communicate, and think critically, says Ms. Collier of SUNY New Paltz. These can be developed in any liberal arts discipline. It makes no sense, she says, to “suffer through a major” because you think it will lead to employment. “We tell students, ‘Find a major that makes you intellectually engaged, that expands your brain and deepens your understanding of the world.’
— Cecilia Simon, New York Times

Third, colleges and universities across this country are shedding the old “general education requirements” with an aim towards giving students earlier and better opportunities to “explore.”  A recent trip I took to the University of Miami, for example, revealed a complete overhaul of the first two years of college curriculum because student feedback on General Education requirements was almost universally negative.  In most cases, students report that Gen Ed courses “get in the way” of doing what students “came here to study” rather than substantially enhancing their undergraduate years.    I think we can all remember a class or two in which our best daily approach was, “the only reason I’m sitting here is because I have to get this course out of my way.”  Of course, there are many schools that were way ahead of the curve on this one in terms of having an open curriculum—a place like Hamilton College comes to mind.  But there can be no mistaking the fact that colleges are increasingly more responsive to a reconsideration of the old model of requirements with an eye towards students being allowed to focus on areas of specific interest – whether within a major or not.


So, where is all this heading?  Like any economic forecast these days, an iffy proposition dependent on many different factors.  Certainly, majors in college will continue to grow and evolve, and students (and parents) will continue to pay close attention to this part of the higher education experience.  I actually had a student come into my office recently and start with this: “I want to major in Actuarial Science.”  That was a first!  But it is also tantalizing to think about how colleges can change and reshape the concept of a major by opting to focus on skill rather than content per se.  In his provocative book College Unbound, writer Jeff Selingo speculates on this very topic in one of the later chapters (See Chapter 9).  He considers work ongoing at colleges and universities to redefine the major as a series of “critical skills” to understand and master independent of a specific content area.  Some of those skills include: modeling, negotiating, collaboration and teamwork to name a few.   When I think of myself as an 18-year-old first year college student all those years ago, I wonder how much of a difference such a distinction in approach would have made?  It also makes me wonder how my conversations at the frat house would have gone.


As part of the conversation on the value of particular majors, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce conducted the study The Economic Value of College Majors, which analyzes "wages for 137 college majors to detail the most popular college majors, the majors that are most likely to lead to an advanced degree, and the economic benefit of earning and advanced degree by undergraduate major."  You can view a short slideshow (below) or read the full report here.