Bryan Caplan  

No Kid of Mine is Going to Major in Archaeology!

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Suppose a college student you personally know wants to major in a low-paying, impractical major - like Fine Arts or Archaeology.  How would people in your social circle react if his parents, though willing to pay for college in general, refused to pay for their kid to pursue such a major?

COMMENTS (33 to date)
Nicholas Weininger writes:

Very negatively. But I come from an affluent, bohemian subculture in which self-actualization is very highly valued, and such a refusal would be perceived as stingily refusing to help your kid find their own way in life.

Peter Gerdes writes:

When considering the implications of such facts (be it that majors don't matter because its all signalling or something else) I think it is worth keeping in mind that the negative attitude about such dictates may simply be a result of the observed failures or previous generations to predict what will be useful or high paying in the future.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

It depends on what the student wants to do with their life. A lot of pressure from parents out other adults may be counter-productive. IMO it's better to let the kids make their own choice. There is plenty of time for them to sort things out.

My sister has a PhD in Biblical Studies and has had a productive career as a college professor. I personally know several art majors who have good careers as well designers, painters, and Jewelers. We should not be so quick to judge just because someone doesn't go to college to major in finance.

john hare writes:

People I know would be very supportive of parents not subsidizing destructive life choices. Money is too hard to come by to blow it on a Bachelors degree in unemployment.

Rory writes:

Oh.. my social circle (except my liberal family) all agreed, but then again I work in a blue collar industry in a position that doesn't require college, though I am highly compensated. Also retired military.

Dylan writes:

It's a particularly interesting hypothetical for me, since the most financially successful college graduates I know that actually do anything remotely related to their degree have either a Fine Arts degree (at least two, plus one that was either FA or theater) The other one has a degree in Anthropology, but is effectively an archaeologist. They are not the most financially successful people I know, those would be the ones that skipped college or dropped out in order to do IT. And surprisingly, the ones that have had the most trouble finding good high paying work got STEM degrees. The valedictorian of our high school went to a good school and got a Chemical Engineering degree, but ended up switching fields entirely when she realized she was unlikely to make much more than $45-50K without a PhD, and even then wouldn't make all that much more. Something I was able to confirm, since in my job I get salary data for chemists and biology PhDs all the time, and they are rarely above $100K, and often quite a bit below that.

I know that is all anecdotal, but that's kind of the point. Those fine art majors certainly wouldn't have done better if they'd majored in business or chemistry or gone to a trade school and became a welder. So in my social circles a lot of the reaction would depend on the individual kid and the parent. Are they majoring in fine art because they don't really know what they want to do, and they kind of like painting, or is it the thing that has driven them their whole life? Are they either going to one of the best colleges in the country, or else a less expensive state school? Either probably makes a lot more sense than trying to get a FA degree at a mid-tier but still really expensive liberal arts college that most people haven't heard of.

Jonathan Sawyer writes:

Glad that they are going to college, with slight condescension that their degree may not get them onto a stable career track. They would encourage a double major for someone who wants to study music, art, etc.

Fazal Majid writes:

Restaurants are required to post health inspection results. Packaged food has to show nutritional information in excruciating detail. And yet, universities are not required to give prospective applicants basic facts about graduation rate, placement rates and average starting salaries. When you couple that with departments' perverse incentive to overstate its career prospects (because student headcount helps in internecine turf wars, it's a prescription for disaster.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Social circle? Good for them.

Me? Consider why you're paying for your college for them at all. Starting earlier, wouldn't it be better for them to get a job/get entrepreneurial and put themselves through community college for 2 years, then transfer elsewhere while looking for a scholarship? At the very least, they need to be working and paying a significant chunk of their own way if they're going to get the maximum benefit from it.

Slayne writes:

Grit and work ethic matter.

If my stepson had been some lazy video-gamer, I wouldn't have paid for anything more expensive than community college. At least until he showed some gumption.

Fortunately, he has a great work ethic, and instead of college, wanted to go to technical school. I gladly shelled out, and now he makes more money than I ever did.

I had a sissy major in college, and yet have earned a decent middle class income in my field for the past 33 years. My boss, a history major, got a $2 million salary last year.

Determination has something to do with it.

Mike W writes:

Advice to grandson who was a drummer in a garage band, go into the military...but get a BS first and go in as an officer. He got an Anthropology degree from a state university instead and now unloads trucks at Target. (But he is paying the debt for the degree.) It's their lives...their choices.

John Fembup writes:

My only requirement was that my 3 kids all graduate with debt. Specifically, I paid for the first three undergraduate years - the fourth year was on them. That seems to have given them enough incentive to think hard about their majors. The majors they chose? Earth and planetary science; English; and Graphic Arts. All paid off their undergraduate debt, and all have masters degrees for which they managed to find their own funding - two thru employers, one thru scholarships from the university. All held part-time paying jobs as undergraduate and graduate students. Today, one is a deputy systems engineer for NASA; one is a tenured Spanish teacher at one of the top NYC high schools; and the third has her own design business, also in NYC. Yes, they were fortunate their parents could afford 9 years of undergraduate expenses for them. And yes, they shouldered their responsibility in the deal and worked hard to make their own way given that good head start.

CPAD writes:

Dylan - ChemEng degree holder here (no PhD,but do have MBA). I still like to think of myself as a practicing engineer, although my title is more senior. I have a big team of engineers reporting to me. I can assure you that salaries for ChemEng graduates with some seniority are well above $100k, and there are many opportunities for them to move into management of other engineers (first level manager salaries are in excess of $250k). This data is for engineers in the oil industry. Maybe you are just looking at recent hire salaries? You mention chemistry and biology PhD salaries, which are very different fields to Engineering.

Thaomas writes:

Such parents are shifting the burden for financing socially useful knowledge production [I want those cuneiform tables read and analyze] onto the general taxpayer.

I had not noticed this philistine streak in Caplan until recently. :)

DougT writes:

Degrees are irrelevant. I run a finance company, and one of my most successful new hires was an Anthropology major from a small liberal arts college. She worked for us for three years, and -- to my dismay -- left to pursue a graduate degree in Archeology.

I would have hired her if she were an Economics major, a STEM major, or a Fine Arts major. Character is destiny. This was clear when she interviewed.

robc writes:


Would you have hired her without a degree?

Just trying to see if you are verifying Caplan's signaling argument.

Carl A. B. Pearson writes:

To answer a somewhat complementary version of the question:

My parents told me they weren't paying for college, Period. They happily helped me figure out how to pay for it myself (in some sense - the American taxpayers paid my NROTC scholarship, but I continue to pay them back in military service), which I think went along way to ensuring that it was the useful version (math / physics undergrad, then engineering masters, then physics Ph.D.).

I plan to do the same for (not *to*, as some people might describe it) my kids.

S D writes:

I was 98th percentile nationally in my end-of-high-school exams. I went and majored in English literature . This was not my parents' first choice, but they didn't stop me. It helped that undergraduate education was heavily subsidised in my country at the time and I lived at home.

After graduating I realised that I was going to end up doing stuff that I wasn't interested in, and that I could earn better too.

Anyway I had proved that I could get a degree (signalling!) and was admitted to a postgraduate diploma and then MSc in Economics. This was a LOT harder than my undergraduate degree and cost my parents about a year's wages.

But, 14 years on, it was worth it both personally and financially.

So short answer - the parents should let the kid take the useless major. If they're bright and determined they'll do much better over a lifetime horizon.

Mike W writes:

@S D,

If they're bright and determined they'll do much better over a lifetime horizon.

But what about the 50% of kids who are not bright and/or not determined but end up with zombie debt...i.e., that can't be relieved of and that drains their meager income? They would probably have been better off, if society had not pushed them into college, they had borrowed to buy a car and been an Uber driver.

SG writes:

I think reaction in my social circle would be mixed. I would personally revise my prediction of the student's income down because such an ultimatum would signal a lack of trust and planning on the part of both parents and student.

S D writes:

@Mike W

The question was very specifically about paying for your child's education.

Not about whether they should take on debt, which of course changes the arithmetic completely.

John Cowan writes:

My social circle would react negatively to the parents. Here's why I think the social circle would be correct. High paying degree is better than low paying degree, but low paying degree is better than no degree. What if the child has correctly assessed that they can complete an Archaeology degree (due to interest, difficulty, and/or aptitude), but not a STEM degree? They're making the rational, income maximizing choice.

David Manheim writes:

The bad parenting happened earlier, when the lines of communication between the parents and child deteriorated to the point that they don't respect one another's opinions and choices. That's presumably why the parents feel a need to threaten cutting off support to coerce their child into making a different choice - instead of being able to talk to them, and make a joint decision about what an acceptable choice would be.

Hazel Meade writes:

It's interesting that you chose low paying but high status fields as your examples. What if they chose to major in something with less prestige? Maybe education. Do any answers change ? I kind of think it depends on the student. If you don't think your kid is going to make it as an archaeologist, you could encourage them to major in something practical and take archaeology as a minor. Or even try for a double major.

Dylan writes:


In my field I'm looking at small companies in the pharma business, who employ lots of chemists and biologists, and you're right, most of them are not engineers. Still I was just amazed when I saw how little even PhDs were making, and many times these were people who had been with the company for 20 years and were quite senior. My friend worked as a CE in the pulp industry and I mostly taking her word on what salaries were available (and this was from 10+ years ago now).

I see that my comment can be read as applying to all CEs or even all STEM fields, which is not what I intended. There are obviously high paying jobs in the STEM area, but I don't think it is as cut and dry as Bryan's post seems to implicitly suggest it is. 20 years ago, getting a chemistry degree and specializing in drug discovery would have seemed like a pretty safe bet for a high paying job for most of your life. Then starting about a decade ago pharma started downsizing, lots of chemistry jobs were outsourced, and while the U.S. still specializes in more difficult and non-standard type of chemistry, the big salaries don't seem to really be there (unless you do as you did, and get an MBA to complement the STEM degree).

And the other point I was trying to make is that people aren't fungible. The type of person who would excel in a Fine Arts program is rarely the type who would do well in CE, or would enjoy the work. Forcing them, through the incentive of paying for school, to major in something that is not a good fit feels like a more sure path towards failure than having them pursue something they enjoy and are good at.

What's not clear from the hypothetical is where in the college process is the college student? Unless you are going into a STEM field, you generally have a couple of years before you need to choose your major, which for me at least was a good time to figure out what I liked and was reasonably good at. Is this a new college student that the parent is trying to fore into a STEM field, or is it a student that is a couple years into school already and wants to major in Sculpture instead of say Graphic Arts?

Nick writes:

Leading up to the decision not to pay, the members of my social circle would converse with the student and amongst each other. It would be made known through the grapevine that all members of this cicle felt the chosen path was foolish and not socially acceptable. I doubt anyone in my family would study something that would not be lucrative.

tOKEN writes:

There's a movie about that -- Dead Poets Society. Dad wants kid to focus on practical subjects instead of theater, kid kills himself. In the movie, Dad's the bad guy.

My social circle would accept that conclusion and see any parent who took their kid's artistic opportunities away as basically asking for suicide.

Fred Anderson writes:

I'm something of a social isolate, so I'm unsure how my "social circle" would react. Most, I suspect, would agree with the parents.

But it's been my observation that all occupations are competitive and that, to "win", you have to outperform your competition.

That's much easier if you enjoy what you're doing. You probably can't succeed at something you hate simply because you won't be able to force yourself to put in the hours -- and fake the enthusiasm -- of someone who's enjoying it. (And you probably won't enjoy it very much if you're not much good at it. "Good at it" probably comes from some native talent for the work and LOTS of practice.)

If the kid shows some talent for the field and has a long-standing enthusiasm for it (e.g., has spent half their Saturdays at the Museum since being first introduced on a school field trip) then I'd support them. I think I'd also point out that, in such a field, the mediocrities wind up as museum guards. They'd better be GOOD -- and willing to make sacrifices (like a first job at a less known facility in a small town with a bad climate).

This is (I'm sure) colored by personal experience: My dad had an amazing way with animals and wanted to be a veterinarian; my grandfather angrily declared that all doctors were phonies and that horse doctors were the biggest frauds of all! That was a great loss for my dad (and the animals). I wanted to be an architect; My parents were convinced all architects were gay and no son of theirs was going that route. (I still think I would have been good at it - and happier.)

db writes:


Someone who gets a chemical engineering degree and concludes they will never make more than 45-50k without a Ph.D. is working with very flawed information for the market post-1980 or so. 45-50k is a low to middling starting wage for most ChEs in my industry now. It should be difficult not to break 100k with 10 years experience these days.

Mark Bahner writes:
The valedictorian of our high school went to a good school and got a Chemical Engineering degree, but ended up switching fields entirely when she realized she was unlikely to make much more than $45-50K without a PhD, and even then wouldn't make all that much more.

Today, chemical engineers with bachelor's degrees are making way more than that fresh out of school.

Chemical Engineering salaries

From that website:

Chemical Engineer less than 1 Year Experience: $51,710 - $66,286
Rochelle writes:

So, when I wanted to go to college I really wanted to major in linguistics because I'm really into languages. My mom heavily discouraged this and pushed me towards majoring in business because she decided that's where you can make money. She told me I could compromise by majoring in international business. She wouldn't pay for it if I didn't do something she thought worthwhile.
Jokes on both of us; she ended up reneging on her promise to pay and later I ended up switching to economics because it was more interesting.

That aside, I imagine the reaction of my social circle in the scenario would depend on the perceived wealth of the parents: if they're not well off, the would mostly be understanding. If they want to major in something they're unlikely to get a good job in, then they need to shoulder that burden themselves or find scholarships.
But if their parents have money to burn...jeez talk about controlling and golden handcuffs!

Hazel Meade writes:

Quick question for all the parents saying they won't pay for their kids college:

As I understand it the federal student loan program essentially calculates the parents means and will not lend money to a student that they believe the parents can afford to pay, unless the student is considered financially independent. So you can't get away with not paying for your kids college without forcing your kid to take much higher rate private loans. (This could be a reason to take a gap year- so the government will consider them financially independent and lend them more money, but then the kid must move out and get a job to support themselves.)

I could be wrong about this so let me know if this is incorrect. I do recall way back when I was an undergraduate that the Canada student loan system did it like this - they would only lend the amount of tuition+expenses minus an amount that they thought my parents could afford.

S S writes:

One of my friends cried. I told her that we would not pay for a degree if our kids could not argue a feasible job path for which they could use it to support themselves upon completion. She related that to her experience of her overly controlling mother belittling the major that she had chosen. I explained to her that we were not using the funding as a way to control or dictate our children’s future, we were doing our duty as parents to guide our children towards their best chance at having a successful and happy life. We do not require them to chose a high paying career path, just one that will be likely to have employment opportunities. As parents, we must teach our children the value of their own efforts and to be responsible with opportunities provided to them.
Our world is much different than it was even ten years ago. We have access to so much more information and the ability to learn through online programs, many that are free, and self learning with online tutorials on almost everything from plumbing to coding. The value of the knowledge that was once restricted to books and those who toiled through the education process is not what it once was yet the cost of higher ed has risen to the point of only making sense for the higher paying career paths. To pay so much for knowledge that could be gained without the degree makes the expectation of picking a degree that will have job opportunities a responsible approach for a parent to take with their child.


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