This article is going to upset a lot of people.
This weekend I spoke to a “Video Game Design” major that fit into the classic category of “out-of-context employed millennial graduates”. (You know the type: the English majors working as baristas or the philosophy majors doing administrative work.)
He was telling me about how hopeful he was going in. He loved his field. He was a video game designer in his free time even before he went to college. He went to college to get his foot into the more professional jobs. He graduated with stellar grades. And… after one temp job in the field he came to realize there wasn’t a market for his degree.
He ended up with over 50k in student loan debt and he could barely get his foot in the door (based on some market conditions beyond the scope of this article.) He ended up getting some semi-related jobs but he made it very clear that he was miserable.
All he wanted to do with his life was make games. Now he has to have a mediocre job to pay off loans for decades (and he can’t even spend the time or energy he used to spend doing what he loved.)
If he skipped college, he could afford to do what he love. Instead… he unknowingly made an investment decision. He picked the major he loved and he got bit in the ass for it.
College Majors Matter – Dammit!
I like to argue with the mainstream opinion. I love it! I’m a rebel but it makes me sick to my stomach seeing students getting told this stuff because I’ve repeatedly witnessed the damage it can do.
People will tell you what you want to hear. I know you want to believe that picking the major you love most will pay off better in the long run but it’s just not true.
This is a point that virtually no one can argue with keeping a straight face. Some majors average a higher income than other majors. And… no this isn’t a minor disparity. This is a massive difference. The median career of certain majors pay over double the salary.
And to deal with all the obvious objections to my point:
- College major is not everything!
- Income does not equal happiness.
I know money isn’t everything but don’t underestimate how important it is.
Increasing your income decreases worry, sadness, and anger. Until you’re making over $90,000 a year, it decreases your stress too.
A Message To Students:
I feel like the major issue that most students going to college have is that they’ve never experienced poverty (or even any serious uncertainty.)
This may not apply to you. If so then ignore it.
Many students go to college having never experienced a minimum wage job. Most of them haven’t lived through the same income they can expect when they graduate. If your parents have paid for virtually everything then do not assume money doesn’t matter to you.
Live on the median income of your degree. Minimally, make a budget as if you had that career. Where would you live? How much would you pay? Could you afford everything you live with today? Could you afford your future student loans?
If you are still confident then by all means, make the decision. Just don’t rush into it blindly.
So… what are the kinds of arguments that suggest majors don’t matter?
1. Your degree is a prerequisite for the competitive workforce; the topic is irrelevant.
This is somewhat true but it’s a bit deceptive.
Yes… many degrees are interchangeable. Liberal arts majors can go into management or administration or business or plenty of other things. It’s the same with most degrees. Having a degree “qualifies” you for plenty of jobs that high school graduates would probably get rejected for.
But… didn’t you pick a major you love because you want to spend your time thinking about your major?
If you’re an English major, do you really want to spend your career as a secretary or something else virtually completely unrelated to the awesome stuff about an being an English major?
If you’re a philosophy major, do you really want to think about business all day?
Are you spending tens of thousands of dollars on college to make yourself feel good for 4 years while spending a decade to pay it off doing something you don’t love?
2. Certain fields yield higher incomes, but your major does not need to align with the industry.
So… go to college for the major you love but then spend the rest of your life working for the money? Well… guess what… if working for money is your thing then you’d have been better off spending 4 years in a degree that allowed you to get paid more after you graduate.
No… your philosophy degree will not make it easy for you to get a job in engineering…
I get why you want to learn it. If you love it and think it’s worth learning then do it.
If you can afford college then great.
If you can’t afford college without tens of thousands of dollars of debt then might I suggest you not be stupid!?
You can learn anything you want. Spend four years of your life studying what you love. I’ve spend a year or two out of the workforce learning. It’s awesome but don’t go into debt for it. There are libraries all around you. The internet can teach you virtually anything. The world is yours. Don’t give your world to student loan companies.
3. Your experience, be it on the job or off the job, is what people notice.
Going to college for a degree you plan on working in is a huge amount of experience. It gives you access to the most relevant internships. It’s 4 years of education and experience on the subject.
More importantly, in my opinion, is your ability to get experience without the help of colleges. When you tell your future employer how you work in the field in your free time, you’ll win them over. Employers don’t just want a degree. They want someone that loves what they do.
That’s not an excuse to spend 4 years on an unrelated major.
4. Think soft skills, not major topics.
Again… I agree.
Focus on soft skills like communication. That’s huge. If you can convince someone you’re qualified then it’s almost as good as being qualified. Ideally though, you want to be qualified and be capable of convincing someone.
“93% of employers believe that critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills are more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate field of study”
This is an interesting point but this fundamentally comes down to a person’s ability to convince their employer these things. In any competitive job, the person with the degree in the major is going to look more capable. (And anyway… what employers say they do is not what they do.)
Employers can’t judge problem solving skills in an interview. All they can do is judge communication and qualifications.
This is, also, not an excuse to go into another unrelated major. It’s a rationalization that can make you feel better after screwing up.
5. You’re a better performer when you’re aligned with your purpose.
How is getting a job in a field you don’t love aligning with your purpose?
If an English major loves writing then they shouldn’t get a job working as an administrator to pay their loans off. They should be writing. It’s something they could have been doing without the degree.
6. Your network matters way more than your college major.
Most people’s networks start from their college degree.
Sure… having a network makes a huge difference. That doesn’t change the difference between a high ROI degree and a low ROI degree.
If having a good network is more important than your major then shouldn’t the highest paying degrees be the ones where people make the most friends? Maybe good communicators?
This isn’t a solid argument but just an observation:
Why are most of the higher paying degrees kind of geeky and antisocial? Math… physics… computer science… engineering… These aren’t career fields known for their networking.
Despite that, they seem to be go to high paying fields…
On the other hand; english majors, communications majors, social work, psychology… These are fields dedicated to communicating and dealing with people but they’re near the bottom in pay.
Then again, having a better network makes many people more happy. There is some truth to networking being important. It’s just a pretty strong claim to suggest it’s more important than your major.
So… I know this isn’t what you want to hear but your college degree matters.
It’s not everything but picking a low ROI degree you love means:
- You’ll get paid less.
- You’ll probably be less happy for it.
- You won’t “do what you love” because you’ll have bills to pay.
- But at least you can still get an okay job… Right?
OH NO!? I PICKED A BAD MAJOR?!
Most people that picked a bad major will be in one of two situations right now:
“Oh please… this guy is nuts. He has no clue what he’s talking about.”
If you’re in “denial,” let me know why I’m wrong in the comments below. (I know you don’t think you’re in denial. You think I’m nuts.)
2. “Ohhhhh no….”
Yes. So… you picked a poor ROI major.
It’s not that big a deal.
First of all, if you’re only in your first year or two then just switch. Switch into a practical degree that you think you’d feel okay in (and ideally, something semi-related to what you’re studying now.) This is simple. Plenty of people spend an extra couple semesters in college.
If you’re later in your college career (or graduated) then it’s a little tougher.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you should run for a new higher ROI college degree. You’ve spent years learning this stuff. There are ways you can make sure it doesn’t go to waste but you need to change your expectations:
You are now a career underdog. Statistically, you’re at a disadvantage.
But… knowing you’re at a disadvantage gives you a huge head start on your competition.
Where can your degree take you? You can’t rest on your degree and expect to just get what you want. You need to work harder than an engineer looking for a job. You should find your niche and get into it through sheer effort.
Most graduates with low ROI degrees are going through the motions. You can’t afford to go through the motions if you want it to pay off.
You don’t have to end up in the median range of your career. Extraordinary people can always improve their situation. You can’t settle for average and do what you love. You need to become extraordinary.
(Don’t worry… most of your competition will settle for mediocre jobs that pay their bills anyway.)
Sure… it could have been easier for you but you aren’t screwed.
Do What You Love – But Don’t Get A Degree For It
There is a little discussed portion of this argument.
I believe you should spend your life doing what you love.
You’ll do better work when you love something. It’s the most powerful contribution you have for the future of everyone. People who live their passions are happier, more productive, and a whole lot more interesting.
Getting a degree in the field you love is more likely to tear you away from doing what you love.
If you have to go in debt to pay for college then you need to find a way to pay that debt off. If you don’t see a sizable increase in your income potential from the degree, you’re going to be worse of than starting with a lower income.
Which is the better option?
- Going to college for 4 years to get a semi-focused chance to study what you love.
- Owing tens of thousands of dollars of debt.
- Being forced to get a full time job you don’t love because you need to pay your payments.
- Having a little extra spending money after a decade or two
- Getting a part time job
- Living simply
- Doing what you love during the rest of your time
- Studying only what you love when you want to
- Learning to pay the bills actually doing what you love.
If you truly love your field of study then the choice should be obvious.
You don’t need a college degree to do what you love.
A college degree can be a luxury purchase but you shouldn’t purchase luxuries you can’t afford.
Are your parents paying for college for you? Okay… maybe do what you love.
Do you have a sizable savings that can pay for college? Maybe you can do what you love.
Do you need to sacrifice a decade of your life to pay for it? Now it’s getting a little nuts.
If you want to do what you love then you don’t need college to do it. There are countless ways to get into virtually any field without a degree. Employers value degrees but you only need to get your foot in the door once. If you can prove you’re better than the guy with the degree (you can) then you will have a job.
College degrees can be useful as an investment but your major makes a huge difference in this. You can read more about my thoughts on college as an investment in the members only section.
Do you agree? Disagree? Think I’m completely crazy? Be sure to comment what you think below.
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