By Gorick Ng, MBA Student, Harvard Business School
Should students pick majors based on employability?
US colleges educate over 20.5 million students each year, of which 75-85% will change their majors at least once. The choice of major is no easy feat: for most students this will be the first consequential decision of their lives, second only to their choice of college. It is for good reason: from a future earnings perspective, picking one college major over another can yield a lifetime earnings differential of up to $3.4 million.
But employability should not be the primary purpose to going to college… or should it?
There are compelling arguments on both sides: on one end are the likes of John Dewey, who in 1897 suggested that education “is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” On the other end are those, who, facing over $1 trillion in student debt and discouraging levels of college grad underemployment, are looking to college not for intellectual stimulation, but for a job. Indeed, 91% of matriculating college students rate “to improve employment opportunities” as their reason for going to college.
“I really want to study history, but studying economics will lead to a job. Which should I choose?” asked Andrew, a pragmatic college sophomore.
Then there is Margot, a college junior, who told me that “I like to read and be surrounded by books so I majored in English.” No doubt Margot would have sided with Dewey.
I have seen students like Andrew who choose a “practical” major, only to later regret the decision after showing little interest in the common post-grad paths available. I have also seen the likes of Margot later struggle marketing their English degrees to employers and who wish they had more rigorously evaluated their options earlier.
While Andrew and Margot took opposite approaches to deciding their majors, they share one commonality: they could both benefit from more visibility to the long-term implications of their decisions.
Employers, educators, and parents all have a role to play:
Educators, who are under more pressure than ever to show graduation rates and post-college job placement statistics, have a responsibility to better reveal the post-grad pathways and “value propositions” of their programs.
Employers, especially those who are experiencing a skills shortage, must more clearly articulate the skills, competencies, and knowledge they expect of new hires to take the guesswork out of applying for a job.
Parents, who may ultimately be on the hook with tuition bills, need to consider the long-term return on investment of a given program – both immediately after college and longer term.
For those who would argue that looking at college majors in isolation is overly simplistic – I am on your side. After all, former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner majored in Asian studies and former astronaut Sally Ride was an English major – and many more of us are in fields that have nothing to do with our college majors. But there is little doubt that one’s major matters – and students need our help in thinking long-term.
Gorick Ng helps companies develop tactical skills training to accelerate the learning curve of new hires. From his work Gorick has spent thousands of hours understanding the experiences of Millennials, career counselors, and employers – and the “soft skills” and “hard skills” gaps that exist in the transition from school to work.
Gorick is pursuing his MBA Harvard Business School and is a graduate of Harvard College, where he now serves as a Resident Tutor leading pre-career advising. He was the first in his family to attend high school and college and is passionate about helping young people pursue their dreams.
More on Gorick here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gorickng