College Majors and Their Impact on Careers

Intertwined with selecting a college is choosing a college major — in fact, the majority of CA seniors indicate their first choice field of study on their college applications. With the rising cost of a college degree, parents and students alike are becoming increasingly mindful about taking steps to make sure they have a skillset that is in demand in our ever-changing job market. But do the common assumptions about college majors hold much weight? Are there other questions we should be asking as we discuss college majors and career trajectories with teenagers and young adults? A recent New York Times article by education writer and editor

Jeffrey Selingo, Six Myths About Choosing a College Major, detailed many of the common myths and truths around the choice of what students choose to study (spoiler alert: STEM majors don’t always end up making more money than English majors and even though more women than men are getting college degrees, they are still highly underrepresented in some of the highest paying fields: business economics (31 percent), computer science (20 percent), and mechanical engineering (8 percent) (Selingo, 2017).)

We decided to do some research within the Colorado Academy community to see what CA faculty members and Upper School parents had to say about their own college majors and the impact they had on their own career trajectories. The results are fascinating!

  • Top majors were Social Sciences (26%), English (19%), Languages (17%), and Natural Sciences (12%).
  • Only 55% did not changes their major once in college; 33% changed their major once, 5% changed it twice, and 7% changed three or more times.
  • 70% say their major is directly related to their career, while 22% say it’s indirectly related, and 7% say it’s not related at all.

Of course, this data set is for our talented faculty, but they are all working in education, at the same school. Let’s take a look at the Upper School parent data, who work in a variety of fields in the greater Denver area.

  • Top majors were a tie between Humanities (English/History/Languages) and Finance/ Business/Economics (both with 22%), and Social Sciences (19%).
  • 58% did not change their major; 31% changed it once, 9% changed it twice, 2% changed three or more times.
  • Only 30% say their career is directly related to their college major, 38% say it’s indirectly related, and 31% say it’s not related at all!

The themes that came up over and over again from survey respondents were the importance of finding something they were passionate about and the often underappreciated value of a liberal arts degree. One parent of a senior wrote:

I am a very strong believer in the value of a liberal arts major equipping people to move in many ways in their eventual careers. Though I majored in English and History and am not “directly” involved in those disciplines, I use the skills acquired through studying these subjects every day, and have since I graduated. Learning how to read texts carefully, how to write coherent and compelling paragraphs, and how to analyze issues from a broader context have definitely led to any success I have had…core knowledge and skills in liberal arts are absolutely instrumental in the success of myself and my husband and what we encourage our senior to pursue so that he is well-equipped for the many changes that will face him in the 21st century.

Flexibility, adaptability, multi-disciplinary processing — those will make the difference in his ability to navigate the world and build a successful, rewarding career. Another parent wrote honestly about walking the difficult line between supporting exploration for their child, but also worrying about their selection of a major and career: I think some people do follow a direct path from major to career, and that many others (probably a greater percentage) follow an indirect path. For me, knowing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life at 17 or 18 or 19 years old was not realistic. I see a lot of pressure on kids today to decide on their majors right away. For a kid who does not know, despite that seeming normal for a young person, the pressure is difficult to bear. My indirect path ultimately led me to a satisfying career choice, yet at the same time I both support exploration and simultaneously worry about my kids defining a direction seemingly sooner than I did.

Though there is value in both liberal arts and more technical majors (the fit is dependent on students’ interests, aptitudes, and career goals), the exploration that starts at CA and continues in college and beyond are essential to graduates’ ultimate success. This parent summed it up well by saying, “Learning to think, analyze, discuss, problem solve, write, and speak seem to be the essential ingredients to future success. Those can be developed and honed in a wide variety of majors.” One of our faculty members says, “I would say that, more than ever, my peers find themselves working outside of their major in some way. More than anything, adaptability, collaboration, and grit are stronger factors in the workplace than what college degree you received.” Another says, “I’m glad I chose a broader, and more versatile major, and something I loved.” It is clear that self-exploration and hands-on experience, two things core to CA’s mission and values, are critical to students as they find their majors and ultimately a rewarding career path.