When it comes to selecting a college major, students face a great deal of pressure to make the “right” choice.
And “right” often seems to mean a major that leads to a professional degree, a clear job track, and financial success—which for many students today means being able to pay off student loans.
For students who know their dream job from day one, choosing a college major that leads to a specific career (like engineering or pharmacy) may be a no-brainer. But many others are less sure about what their future career looks like. At Signet, we want to encourage these students to remember that using college as a time to discover what interests you is perfectly okay. Better than okay, in fact—in many ways, that’s exactly what college is for!
In this post, we’ll talk about how you can walk the line between following your heart and making wise choices that will set you up for success.
What's the Point of a College Education?
There’s a debate happening right now over the purpose of college education and the role college should play in students’ future lives. Should you spend your college years pursuing learning for learning’s sake or treat college as a fast track to a career? What’s the point of a college education anyway?
Higher education in the United States has historically been based on a liberal arts curriculum. This model separates what students study in college (majors) from the jobs they get after college (careers). The idea is that students first get well-rounded educations that expand their knowledge, then go out and do something meaningful, which may or may not be directly tied to their specific degree.
Recently, however, college education has trended more toward a “professional track” approach, meaning students choose as a major the exact field of study that they intend to pursue as a career. In this model, university education looks more like trade or vocational schools, which focus on preparing students for a specific profession or craft.
Why has the United States begun to shift closer to this model? The biggest reason is financial. In the age of skyrocketing tuition and massive student debt, many students feel obligated to choose college majors that act as pre-professional training for stable, high-paying jobs. For students who know exactly what kind of career they want, this approach to a college major promises a straightforward journey to a fulfilling future.
However, many students entering college aren’t so sure what career they want, and may not even know what interests them most in terms of major. All too often, students in this category cross their fingers, choose a professional-track college major because it seems safe, and hope everything works out.
What Does This Mean For You?
Here at Signet, we do not advise you to choose a college major based solely on the amount of money you think a career in that field will make. However, neither do we advise you to bury your head in the sand regarding student loans and the cost of college. Those financial concerns are real and should be factored into any decision about college major and career.
Here’s some food for thought for college students and high school seniors contemplating their choice of major:
- Almost all universities offer a liberal arts element in their degree programs. Even in professional-track programs such as engineering, students will usually be required to take courses in other areas of study. This means that even a highly focused college major will offer some elements of that traditional broad-based education.
- There are far more careers than there are college majors. There’s a huge range of jobs in the world, and most of those positions don’t have their own college major. For many people (maybe even most people!) finding the right career is much more about your skill set and personal areas of interest than whether you studied chemistry or literature in college.
- Professional tracks are usually open to students after graduation, although they may require some additional work. Getting an undergraduate degree in art history doesn’t mean you can’t become a doctor. However, you might have to take additional pre-med classes to qualify for medical school, since those classes may not have been covered in the art history curriculum.
- Students should actively explore various career paths. Discovering what you want to be when you grow up doesn’t always hit like a bolt of lightning. Rather than waiting for the answer to descend from the sky, focus on gaining professional experience in areas you think you might be interested in through shadowing, internships, or just having conversations with professionals in different careers. Parents’ friends and college resources are great places to start this exploration.
- Finances are part of the equation. If you are planning to take out loans, being able to repay those loans should factor into decisions about college major and career choices. This is not to say that you can’t follow your passion and study painting or medieval history, but perhaps pair those choices with a few business courses or a computer programming minor, so that you have plenty of options after graduation.
- It’s okay to take your time. When it comes to college majors, you should feel free to take your time in the first year or two of college to discover what major best fits your needs. It’s okay to be undeclared for a while (some schools even require students to be undeclared during freshman year) and to allow the experiences of college to unfold naturally. As for careers, many college graduates now take 1-2 years to figure out career paths, often returning home to live with their parents in the interim. If this is viable for students and parents (both financially and emotionally), it can be a useful option.
You Don’t Have to Take Our Word For It...
...But before we wrap this post up, I—Jay—want to share a bit about my personal experiences.
As a college student, I studied comparative religion and music. I always loved teaching but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do as a career. I never could have predicted that I would end up running an educational company!
As an advisor who has worked with hundreds of students, I’ve seen that a college major doesn’t necessarily tie in to a post-college career. Some of the most interesting stories happen when students completely change their minds about what they want to do as they learn more about themselves. Students are most successful when they give themselves permission to explore and to grow, both during college and afterwards.
As a business owner who hires and manages people, I’ve realized that I would much rather hire someone who is thoughtful, disciplined, willing to tackle challenges, and professional over somebody who has a great educational background but is not a great employee.
The most important things to gain from college are exposure to a wide variety of people; a broad base of knowledge; the ability to think deeply and critically; skills in communication, time management, and project management; and self-confidence. These are the things that will stick with you long after the specific facts of college courses have faded away. By focusing on essential skill-building, you can use any major to prepare yourself for a meaningful career—and life.