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Picking a College Major for the Money

By Lynn O’Shaughnessy, the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, is a nationally recognized higher-ed expert, who shares advice with families at her blog, Lynn teaches families how to afford college through her online course – Cutting the Cost of College.

Is your child interested in picking a college major based on those ubiquitous lists of the country’s highest-paying college degrees?


Plenty of students are pursuing degrees that they perceive will generate the biggest salaries. I assume that’s why business is the most popular major – more than one out of every five students select it. I can’t resist mentioning that the blockbuster Academically Adrift study suggests that the grads who learned the least in college are business majors!

Searching for a College Major

college major

There are risks in picking majors by following the dollar signs, but before I explain why, please take a look at an email that I received from a student I’ll call John:

I’m in a sticky situation. I am a freshman in college at the University of North Florida. Both my parents graduated with engineering degrees so I am being pressured to be major in something that in my parents view as important (engineering, biology, or law).

My dad makes good money so I felt like that the best option for me was engineering. Next semester I mathwas supposed to take my Calculus I class to go on the engineering path, but I hit a road bump already because I got a 62% in pre-calculus. I have always thought of international business in the back of my mind and I talked to my counselor about double majoring with finance, accounting or an economics degree. Well I was wondering do any of these majors promise a job and a good future economically. Please help me!

Picking the Wrong Major

I can appreciate the dilemma this student faces. He picked engineering as a potential major because his parents would approve and he’d be more likely to find a good paying job. His mistake, however, was selecting a major without considering where his talents and interests lie. Pursuing an engineering degree won’t lead to a top-paying job if you crash and burn or you just barely survive the experience.

Here is the response that I sent John:

The absolute worst thing you can do is major in something just because your parents desire it. The wash-out rate for engineering majors is extremely high and wanting to major in engineering because the profession enjoys higher salaries is probably going to fail. People who drop out of engineering programs are going to be in worse shape than those who major in something they really like and are good at. It doesn’t really matter what the major is, what’s important is getting a degree.

Here is a blog post that I recommend that you and your parents should read: Getting Real About Majoring in Engineering

Follow-Up Email

I received a follow-up email from John:


Do you know anything about accounting, finance, or economics degrees and which of these degrees could most help me get a job for the future?

Here is my second email:

art studio paintsYou should look for a major that you can actually succeed at.

If you aren’t good with numbers, you should stay away from majors like accounting and finance. You can major in anything — studio art, psychology, Spanish, theater, anthropology – what matters is making the most of your time at school.

That should include getting involved in meaningful activities, finding a mentor and locating internships. Before graduating you and all college students should also have learned such basics as Microsoft Office (including Excel and Powerpoint) Google Drive, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro (video editing) and be able to create a website. You should also be able to speak in front of a group, think critically and write well. Those are abilities that employers care about.

I’d highly recommend getting the Thinking Student’s Guide to College which should help you understand what you should be doing in terms of picking a major.

Another Student Pursuing Engineering

I received John’s email at the same time that I’ve been trying to convince a high school senior in St. Louis (my hometown) to ditch his intention to major in engineering. Jay loves theater and singing and has participated in the drama and choir groups throughout his high school years even as he’s had to work long hours at a store because his parents are low income.

Jay feels strongly that he needs to major in engineering to help his family financially, but he doesn’t understand that you need more than desire to successfully major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Jay has not taken Calculus nor Advanced Placement physics or chemistry in high school. His lowest subscore on the ACT was a 20 in science (the top score possible is a 36). I still haven’t convinced Jay that starting college with an inappropriate major is going to make succeeding in school much more difficult.

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