Choosing a College Major

By: 
Al Jacobs

Not long ago I happened upon an article in the Wall Street Journal with a title that caught my attention: “Is Majoring in English Worth It?” It’s author, William McGurn, currently writes the weekly “Main Street” column for the Journal, previously served as managing editor of the American Spectator, later as Washington Bureau Chief of National Review, and thereafter as chief speech writer for President George W. Bush. With his additional background as a Visiting Fellow at Hillsdale College, he understands education and the ramifications of the course majors students choose.

The opening portion of the article stresses a commonly considered theme: What will a university degree cost and what sort of income will the graduate earn upon entering the workforce? Understandably, colleges sell themselves as the road to upward mobility by stressing how a university degree assures its recipient a lifetime of increased earnings, as opposed to those who are not so blessed. These are the factors which often influence the choices of many students – and particularly the parents, who often foot their education bill. However, the data presented normally fails to distinguish between the various degrees, and how much may be earned with each.

For those of you who haven’t recently paid much attention to the cost of a university degree, you’ll be astounded at the price. If a student attends a public four-year school across the country, average annual tuition and resident costs will total $40.940. If, instead, a private school is chosen, the average price becomes $50,900. However, if the school chosen is one regarded as prestigious, annual tuition and fees can escalate higher into the stratosphere. Here are several examples: University of Southern California $56,225; Trinity College $56,910; University of Chicago $57,006; Columbia University $59,430. Isn’t it evident that, unless a student is from a family with substantial means, a bachelor’s degree can become effectively unobtainable? And isn’t it equally evident that if the student of modest means is induced to apply for and obtain a student loan, he or she must be reasonably certain of landing an extremely well-paying job upon graduation?

This now brings us back to the classroom and the question of what sort of course major to select. Unless money is of no consequence – and for the well-heeled among us, it may not be – the employment opportunities and the expected starting pay must be a prime consideration. As you’re probably aware, the STEM courses (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) rank the highest. Average annual salaries following graduation in this category are as follows.

  • Computer Science    $67,355
  • Electrical Engineer   $63,584
  • Chemical Engineer   $62,371
  • Mechanical Engineer  $57,724

As the expertise required to perform the functions of a profession lessens, the starting salary decreases. Several such mid-level professions are shown below.

  • Operations Logistics    $54,335
  • Finance         $51,735
  • Economics        $50,364
  • Accounting        $46,305

And as you’d expect the following fields, requiring only minimal talent, pay the least.

  • English & Literature    $37,372
  • General Education     $36,644
  • Language & Drama     $36,252
  • Health Services      $35,702
  • Childhood Education    $34,516
  • Social Work        $31,050
  • Theology         $30,309

One fact should be obviously clear: If you complete a 4-year course of study costing $50,000 annually, thereby totaling $200,000, and accept a job position with a starting salary of $37,500 – and an uncertain future salary – you’ve set yourself up in a most precarious financial situation. After paying income and FICA taxes, together with the costs of food, lodging, transportation, and other normal survival expenses, it’s unlikely you’ll have much of anything left at the end of each month.

And if you were forced to incur a student loan to fund your education, you’ll probably not manage to break even. This is not the way to begin your productive working years.

Let’s now return to the title of Mr. McGurn’s article: “Is Majoring in English Worth It?” If we choose to go back to an earlier era, it might be said the purpose of what was referred to as a “liberal education” never involved a high-paying career.

To quote Jonathan Pidluzuny, director of academic affairs for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni: “The English major was once a guarantor of effective, formal writing skills and the ability to comprehend and analyze the complex thoughts found within centuries of brilliant and challenging poetry and prose.” He then ruefully added: “Its decline into the epiphenomena of popular culture and identity politics is a self-inflicted wound that has rocked its credibility.”

What did Mr. Pidluzuny conclude? Today’s English degree is not your father’s or grandfather’s English degree. The majority of top schools, as ranked by the U.S. News and World Report, allow English majors to graduate without ever having taken a single course on Shakespeare. Furthermore, the average graduate from the most prestigious flagship universities shows little or no improvement in critical thinking for having attended college.

This may be better understood when you recognize the humanities are now disproportionately infected by political correctness and the malignant influence of what is known as repressive tolerance. It’s for this reason most prose and poetry today is scarcely worth reading.

All you need do is Google onto the poetry of either the current or a past Poet Laureate to see what I mean. It’s for this reason that if a career in English Literature does not portend to be highly remunerative, there’s no justification for pursuing it as a career … and trust me, it will most certainly not be particularly remunerative.

Although we seem to have resolved the question posed in Mr. McGurn’s provocative title, there’s an uncomfortable corollary we’ve completely ignored. If majoring in English is out of the question – as it appears to be – and for purely economic reasons we choose to pursue the STEM subjects, are there any likely problems we may encounter in going this route? The answer to this question is unhappily perplexing: maybe yes and maybe no.

There’s a fundamental reason why the humanities have sunken to the level they now occupy. The educational system, over the past century, successfully – and profitably – enrolled hordes of individuals into the realm of higher education. And as the classrooms filled with more and more warm bodies, it became unavoidable many would possess fewer little gray cells to accompany them. This is the reason so many college courses were dumbed down. If a paying student can’t grasp the demands of a course, the course must devolve to meet the capabilities of the paying student. This is no more than simple financial logic.

The one educational section which cannot get away with this scheme is the physical sciences department. If a civil engineer cannot calculate the correct size of the bolts supporting a bridge, you can easily guess what might happen.

If a chemist is unable to distinguish between HCl (hydrogen chloride) and HCN (hydrogen cyanide), I dread to predict the result. And it only stands to reason that someone with an IQ of 85, who may be able to compose a marginally intelligible short story, could never manage to pass a freshman physics class … let alone actually earn a STEM degree.

Thus, for the vast majority of students, it’s not a matter of pursuing a degree to generate the best income. To actually receive a graduation certificate of some sort, most will be forced to wallow in those courses in which they can actually eke out a passing grade.

A final thought: Mr. McGurn’s concluding sentence proclaims “But for an English major who studies Harry Potter instead of Chaucer, or spends his time on gender theory instead of reading great literature, the costs aren’t as obvious – except to the graduate who only later realizes he never developed the keen analytical mind and precise style of writing college was supposed to cultivate.”

Sadly, this generally accepted presumption ignores the real misfortune. It’s that keen analytical minds are not developed. As with other genetic characteristics, either they exist or they do not.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al can be contacted at al@abjacobs.com.

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