The Economic Worth of College Majors

Penn Office of Admissions

Something that should be attended to as a part of college planning is the student’s choice of major. I disagree that students should feel pressure to make a firm decision before matriculating, but the process should at least be launched in terms of exploration and consideration. There’s a great piece by Jacques Steinberg (author of a fine book on elite college admissions, The Gatekeepers) in the NY Times “The Choice” blog on May 24, 2011, about the relative value of the range of college majors. Referencing a new report by Georgetown University, Steinberg shares the good news, which is that college degrees more than pay for themselves over time, and position bachelors degree holders well ahead of those with high school diplomas in terms of future earnings.

It’s no surprise that some degrees pay off far more than others. At the top of the range for what BA/BS degree holders can command in salary are petroleum engineers and pharmacists. At the bottom are holders of degrees in psychology, early childhood education, and theology.

This information matches what I’ve been saying to students for some time. You should study what you love and what you are suited for (certainly not all are suited to be petroleum engineers!); however, some degrees will require more forethought and initiative on the part of the student than others to lead to a good-paying job. Psych majors (especially counseling psych) will command higher salaries if the student goes on to grad school and achieves a higher-level credential. The pursuit of internships can add greatly to the value of all degrees. Others who wish to major in broad liberal arts subjects (such as philosophy or art) would be well advised to select a more hard-nosed minor that confers a more concrete knowledge base, such as accounting, or computer information systems. Acquiring a pragmatic skill set, whether in the form of a minor or grouping of courses, such as foreign language study, can also add a lot of clout to a degree.

Recently Visited: Haverford College

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant and college counselor who helps students and their families stay on top of college planning. Lisa’s practice is grounded in 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration. She constantly tours, reads, and does professional development in order to give clients the most up-to-date info.

One of the schools I visited on my recent Philadelphia college-touring trip was Haverford College, located in Haverford, PA, a suburb of Philly. Haverford is a lovely, leafy, historic gem of a school, with many attractive features.

First a few factoids: Haverford is on the small side, with 1190 students, and it’s in the pricey range characteristic of highly selective private liberal arts colleges, at a total cost of attendance of $52, 970 for 2010-11. The most popular majors are biology, political science, economics, English, and psychology. This would be a place to receive a high-quality education in a unique environment and be well positioned for graduate or professional school afterwards. The nearly 96% freshman retention rate speaks well to student attachment to the place.

Two things in particular stood out to me during my visit, one being the student run, character-based honor code. The code harkens back to the Quaker origins of the school, and is so strongly honored that exams can be taken unproctored nearly anywhere on campus (even in students’ dorm rooms!).  One testament to the code that I observed while visiting was that students are comfortable (and apparently safe) in leaving possessions like backpacks, laptops and bikes unattended and unlocked while eating in the dining commons and doing other things.  Apparently theft is not a problem on this campus.

Secondly, the school is a member of the “Quaker Consortium,” a grouping of four nearby colleges founded by the historic sect that involves a reciprocal agreement to share course enrollments and activities.  The schools involved include Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania, along with Haverford. A student at ‘Ford who begins to chafe at it’s size would be free to take a class downtown at Penn, and join a club at Bryn Mawr, for example. Shuttle buses regularly ferry students amongst the campuses.

Haverford isn’t cheap, but for those who can negotiate its cost (lots of financial aid is distributed, btw), this would be one fine educational experience.

The photo is of Founders Hall, a historic campus building.  On the day of my tour Korean students were hosting a barbecue in front.  The smell made me want to get in line!