Arnold Kling  

Choosing a College Major

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Fabio Rojas writes,

using a yearly survey of freshmen, that college students are becoming more interested in making money. In 1971, about 50% went to college to make money. In the 1990s, it's about 70%. Similarly, modern college students are more interested in financial stability, not philosophical issues.

I am not sure that is inconsistent with students wanting to shun business. My reading of contemporary college students is that they want to work for non-profits and be reasonably well off.

Anyway, the WSJ blog has a table of earnings by different college majors. I tried to find out more by looking at the source, but this did not address my questions. For example, vintage matters. The median earnings for some newer majors may be low due to the fact that they don't contain workers who have had time to climb the earnings ladder.

Also, ability matters. An undergraduate business major may be the degree of choice for someone of relatively low ability, which it would give it a somewhat low earnings profile even though it might be adding a lot of value to the students who obtain it. Conversely, a philosophy major may indicate someone of high ability, but it may add little (market) value to the recipient.

The data are tantalizing, and I look forward to seeing how people slice and dice them to produce interesting insights.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
DW writes:

College major is a red herring. As are youthful mistakes. I sure wasn't qualified to make life-altering decisions as a 19-year-old.

Look at wages by occupation instead and think: how can people get these jobs in SPITE of their college major?

Programmers self-teach and use Github to demonstrate domain competence no matter how much non-profit work they did as a youthful college idealist.

Andreas Moser writes:

I still prefer studying philosophy:

chipotle writes:
My reading of contemporary college students is that they want to work for non-profits and be reasonably well off.

Dr. Kling does not even offer so much as "anecdata" in support of his assertion. Why should the skeptic take his "reading" seriously?

Glen Smith writes:

For most people, the path to riches is to keep the rent-seeking environment enabled. One side uses taxes and regulation while another side may use more direct means to enable big government while still another uses calls for privitization.

Nathan Smith writes:

1. A philosophy major might indicate that a person's lifetime income prospects are high enough that they can afford to treat college as consumption rather than investment. A business major might indicate someone who can't.

2. Trends in the choice of college majors in the past 20-30 years, particularly the striking neglect of lucrative fields like computer engineering, indicates to me that people thought the economic future was bright enough that, while they may have expected an earnings boost just from having a sheepskin, they didn't feel the need to use college to maximize earnings. I expect to see that trend change in the next few years. People will feel a fresh urgency to make college pay.

Jack writes:

The story could also be explained by a rising mean and variance of earnings (which I think is the case, but I do not have data).

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