So, What Should I Major In?

Struggling with degree decisions.

By Ryyan Chacra

When I began my freshman year at Columbia University in the fall of 2013, I believed in a liberal arts education. I was excited about Columbia’s famed core curriculum of Western art and literature, and I planned to major in Middle Eastern studies to explore my interest in foreign policy.

A couple of months into the semester, however, I noticed a trend among my classmates that led me to reconsider my approach to selecting a major. While Columbia offers 86 majors ranging from applied mathematics to visual arts, I observed that many of my peers planned to pursue a select few technical economics majors because these promise more reliable career paths.

Intellectual Curiosity vs. Career Focus

I decided to investigate further. According to the university’s “Statistics & Facts” Web page, of the 1,062 degrees earned at Columbia in 2012, 206 were in specialized economics. That’s 19.4 percent, or nearly one-fifth of diplomas, representing 8.1 percent of possible majors.

Perhaps naively, I was startled by these figures. Columbia’s mission states that it “expects all areas of the university to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level,” which I took to endorse a well rounded education. I ultimately ascertained, however, that the disproportionately high number of technical economics majors reflects a priority among students to ensure their financial security after graduation as a response to a turbulent labor market.

This outlook prompted me to re-evaluate whether intellectual curiosity constitutes sufficient grounds on which to select a major, and to reconsider the merits of selecting a major as the foundation for a future career.

How am I Going to Get a Job?

Sitting at the breakfast table over winter break, I mentioned my concerns to my parents. My dad happened to be reading a New York Times article by Thomas Friedman titled “How to Get a Job at Google” that, serendipitously, addressed my situation.

… while good grades certainly don’t hurt, companies like Google care more about what you can do than about your GPA. In fact, … up to 14 percent of employees on some Google teams have no college degree at all.”

In the article, Friedman addresses the question, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” by interviewing Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of “people operations” at Google. Bock says that while good grades certainly don’t hurt, companies like Google care more about what you can do than about your GPA. In fact, the article states that up to 14 percent of employees on some Google teams have no college degree at all.

This is to say that beyond simply going to college and graduating with a degree, the specialized skills a student acquires matter most, in terms of employability and earning potential.

The Friedman article led me to research the differences in earnings between people with different degrees. I found a 2012 Forbes report, which revealed that of the 10 best-paying majors out of college, the only two non-engineering specialties are finance and computer science—both technical majors.

The Greater Employment Picture

According to a 2014 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the estimated combined rate of unemployment and underemployment in the United States is a steep 13.4 percent. This means that more than 1 in 10 Americans is either unemployed or overly qualified for the job he holds. That’s scary to a college student concerned about his future.

While I am still processing the pressure I feel to choose a technical major over one I find more interesting, I am very clear about the need to prepare for the job market, since I wish to be employed after I graduate. Needless to say, a significant part of that preparation is obtained through understanding money and developing a disciplined approach to managing it, irrespective of the career I ultimately follow.

All of this has raised more questions for me than it has answered. What does it mean when a disproportionate number of students are compelled by an exacting job market to pursue technical majors? What will become of that liberal arts education that I was so excited about when I started freshman year? And finally, what will the employment picture look like by the time I am ready to join the workforce?

Oh, and I almost forgot … What should I major in?

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]