Picking a major

By Kelly Barnhardt, College Admissions Strategies, Owner

“Follow your passion!” is the conventional wisdom for students choosing a major and a career. However, as a high school student, it’s unlikely that you have a clear view of the breadth and depth of the job market. Not many adults do either, given the rate of change in our economy. No one knows which careers will be hot five years from now. Some of the hottest job categories of 2027 may not even exist yet.

We at College Admissions Strategies advise that you proceed carefully in selecting a major. Take an inventory of your interests, aptitudes, and lifestyle preferences. Choosing a major evolves from self-knowledge.

Factors in Choosing a Major
Your life’s plan has probably not crystallized yet, but you know what you like. The activity that you like best may correlate to an academic field. If you loved writing for the school newspaper and seeing your work in print or if you enjoyed your summer construction job and understood the bigger picture, then journalism or civil engineering may be the right major for you.

But what if the activities that you like best relate to a career in which your chances of success are slim? For example, there are only a small percentage of students who love a sport or a performing art that have the talent to become a professional. You may need to dig deeper to discover where your tastes and talents overlap.

A Major Can Be Changed
If you don’t know which major fits you best by the beginning of senior year, you can still impress colleges by presenting a vivid picture of yourself as a seriously committed student. In your application, essays, letters, and interviews, build on one academic subject that interests you. Show how you have prepared enthusiastically to major in it. Evidence of such dedication impresses admissions officers.

All colleges don’t require you to choose a major as freshmen, but many do. As an undergraduate, you’re not committed to the major you indicate on your application. You can change it after enrollment as long as you stay within the same division of the college that admitted you. If you don’t need to declare a major as a freshman, you’ll have ample time to learn about other majors through your course work. You can then make a final determination at the end of freshman year or, in some cases, sophomore year.

 Future Income Can Guide the Choice
The decision to enroll in a top-tier college calls for a substantial financial sacrifice from even an affluent American family. Many families, in order to justify the cost of a degree, want to know the return on investment (ROI) of graduates. The two variables that matter most in this analysis are the college from which you graduate and your major.

Two publications, Money and Forbes, publish annual rankings that focus on ROI. Money’s special issue is titled “Best Colleges for Your Money” and the Forbes’s is the “Best Value Colleges” edition. Their methodologies differ from U.S. News & World Report, the most popular ranking resource. U.S. News relies more on academic factors such as admissions rate, four-year graduation rate, student-faculty ratio, and so on. According to Money and Forbes, these factors are of secondary importance. To them, the most important measurable outcome of a college education is lifetime earnings. Money and Forbes give the most weight to whether a college imparts a profound lifetime economic benefit to graduates.

The top 20 colleges in the Money and Forbes rankings for 2021 are compared side by side below. Eleven of the colleges are on both lists.

Table A: Colleges with Best Returns on Investment in 2021

Rank Money Magazine Rank Forbes Magazine
1 MIT 1 UC Berkeley
2 Stanford 2 Yale
3 Princeton 3 Princeton
4 Michigan – Ann Arbor 4 Stanford
5 Duke 5 Columbia
6 Virginia – Charlottesville 6 MIT
7 Yale 7 Harvard
8 Vanderbilt 8 UC Los Angeles
9 UC San Diego 9 UPenn
10 UC Davis 10 Northwestern
11 Texas A&M 11 Dartmouth
12 Washington & Lee 12 Duke
13 UC Irvine 13 Cornell
14 Harvard 14 Vanderbilt
15 Cal State Polytechnic 15 UC San Diego
16 Florida – Gainesville 16 Amherst
17 UC Berkeley 17 USC
18 Rice 18 Williams
19 UC Los Angeles 19 Pomona
20 Univ. of Washington – Seattle 20 UC Davis

Your major is the other key variable in ROI analysis. Graduates in some majors command higher starting salaries than others. The Third Way Institute analyzed data from the Department of Education from over two million graduates and compared their earnings two years after graduation. They found that there are 11 majors that enable graduates, on average, to recoup their college investment in five years or less. All 11 are engineering majors: Petroleum, Aerospace, Industrial, Software, Nuclear, Electrical, Mechanical/Civil, Biomedical, Chemical, Architectural, Computer, Materials/Materials Science.

According to Chris Morris, writing in Fortune, the majors below currently command the highest salaries after graduation. They are all STEM fields.

  • Petroleum engineering – $87,989.
  • Computer programming – $86,098.
  • Computer engineering – $85,996.
  • Computer science – $85,766.
  • Electrical, electronics, and communications engineering – $80,819.
  • Operations research – $80,166.
  • Computer and information science – $78,603.

What If You’re Not Interested in a STEM Field?
Like many high school seniors, you may find that the STEM majors that lead to the highest salaries don’t appeal to you because one of the following conditions is true:

  1. You have no passion that translates into a STEM major,
  2. You have no aptitude for a STEM field, and
  3. You won’t major in a STEM field that you don’t like or for which you have no aptitude just to increase the likelihood of earning a higher starting salary.

What academic and career path might be best for you if one of these conditions is true?

Explore the Humanities!
The Humanities are academic fields that focus on the study of the human condition from various perspectives. In the U.S., the Humanities includes the following fields:

Anthropology Classical Languages and Culture History
Geography Linguistics and Foreign Languages Performing Arts
Literature Law, Government, and Public Policy Philosophy
Theology English – Writing and Grammar Visual Arts

Columbia University, in the founding tradition of the oldest American colleges, requires that all students have a firm grounding in the Humanities. Columbia‘s Core Curriculum is a set of mandatory courses in the Humanities that are the foundation of the academic experience of every Columbia undergraduate regardless of their major.

Columbia bucks a trend that began in the late 20th century in American education, which is to reduce requirements in the Humanities in order to allow for more STEM courses. There is a widely-held opinion that required courses in the Humanities displace STEM courses, thereby reducing the employability and income potential of graduates.

The factors that have driven students, often against their desire and best interests, away from the Humanities are exaggerated. In fact, the alleged abandonment of the Humanities is itself an exaggeration. The proportion of students majoring in the Humanities did decline from 1970 to 1995, but the percentage over the last two-plus decades has held steady at 21% of total bachelor’s degrees. Perhaps what led to the perception of decline is that, in percentages of Humanities graduates, elite schools like Berkeley, Yale, and Cornell dropped from exceptionally high levels to merely above average.

Historically, the basis for the founding of American colleges was not to train students for a specialized career. Rather, the guiding philosophy was that exposure to a broad intellectual tradition was necessary for leadership in the community, commerce, and the professions. This may seem naïve in a society as complex and technology-intensive as ours, but the Humanities still give graduates the opportunity to rise in management.

The Humanities teach two vital competencies that are missing from a STEM-only curriculum: precise communication and critical thinking. In the Humanities, students learns to fully engage with the material, consider it from all angles, solve problems creatively without bias, express themselves well, and adapt to new situations.

Corporations aren’t looking for management candidates who know only one subject in great depth. They seek leaders who are quick, innovative, and creative, characteristics that most closely fit Humanities graduates. A study for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93% of senior executives agreed that “A demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major.”

A measure often used against the Humanities when comparing them to STEM fields is salary potential. However, according to the New York Times, “The top 25 percent of history and English majors earn more than the average major in science and math, while the bottom 25 percent of business majors make less than the bottom 25 percent of those majoring in government and public policy.”

The best jobs of the future will go to those who collaborate widely, think broadly, and challenge conventional wisdom — precisely the capacities developed in the Humanities. Don’t be discouraged from majoring in the Humanities if that’s where your passion lies.

Conversations with your College Admissions Strategies consultant will develop your ability to recognize the right major for you. We’re experts at what we do, and we make choosing a major a smoother and more productive process than you would otherwise experience. We offer an opportunity for you to get expert advice from an unbiased professional so you don’t need to rely exclusively on family, friends, and a guidance counselor.

Barnhardt is an independent college consultant based in Charlotte, NC. Send questions to: