Choosing a Major, Picking a Winner
As first appearing in the Southeast Missourian:
Several decades ago, earning a college degree—almost any college degree—was all it took to get a job. Now, many college students must strategically choose the right major in order to break into the field with the greatest growth potential. Experts say that majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), health care, and agriculture offer the surest path to rewarding careers. But how good are these “expert” predictions? Should state governments direct tax dollars toward these winning degrees?
For years, states have incentivized the pursuit of certain majors through grants and scholarships. Gov. Nixon signed a bill in April, for example, which will grant 80 $5,000 scholarships to agriculture majors who agree to work in the agricultural industry in Missouri after graduation.
“The overwhelming argument now for education—at all levels and from government—is that it’s a preparation to make you a better factor of production,” Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn told the Wall Street Journal recently.
It’s certainly true that students are no longer attending college to learn for the sake of learning, but before we continue our practice of picking winning and losing majors, there are a few things we should consider.
First, 80 percent of college students switch majors at least once. Though a student may pursue a degree through the assistance of a grant or scholarship, there is no guarantee the student will remain in that major, complete the degree, or pursue a job within that field of study. In many cases, students must repay loans for coursework they never use in their actual career.
Even if scholarship programs hold students accountable through loan repayment agreements, employment trends change. According to Will College Pay Off? author Peter Cappelli, “The odds of predicting correctly are zero to none.” By the time students graduate and enter the job market, a prediction might not pan out, or new “hot” jobs will replace old “hot” jobs. Cappelli cites the increase in the demand for petroleum engineers due to fracking. Ten years ago, the word “fracking” bore little significance to the public. Now petroleum engineering graduates have the highest projected median starting salary for the class of 2015.
Just as it’s not always clear which fields are expected to experience job growth, it’s also unclear if any of our attempts to attract specific students to certain fields have paid off. For example, Missouri offers the Minority Teaching Scholarship to students who agree to teach within a Missouri school for five years after graduation.
While attracting minority students to the teaching profession is a concern in schools everywhere, there are a lot of unknowns. How many students remain in the profession beyond five years? How many students decide to pursue a different career and become burdened with student debt? Do these students teach in high-need schools? Do these students become effective teachers?
We don’t actually know, because we aren’t tracking these investments. At this point, the state is about as good at predicting the future of the economy as an 18-year-old is good at picking a major.
This is not to say that investing in education isn’t worthwhile, but we should be cautious about expanding our practice of picking winning majors, especially if investing in certain degrees does not result in net gains for taxpayers and college graduates.