Choosing field of study is a major balancing act

The choice of a college major has always been a significant decision, and economics has made it more so.

For most American families the cost of a college education is no small matter. Even parents who see themselves as financially comfortable can experience shortness of breath and other symptoms of anxiety when confronting the total cost of sending young Pugsley off to college for four years, perhaps while his sister and brother await their turn.

Among other effects, the costs of higher education have placed a sobering price tag on changing majors. Course scheduling constraints at many schools make it increasingly difficult to do so without adding at least a year and its costs to the total needed for graduation.

A college education is, and should be, a life changing experience. Realizing that, and the costs of poor choices, how should we approach the decision of choosing a major?

Many high school students have only minimal contact with the world of adults, and often possess an unrealistic, TV-flavored impression of workplaces or economic activity. Quite a few make their initial choice of college major without a good understanding of their own motivations and skills and how they might fit into a career.

Colleges and universities are very aware of this, and a good number of them do not even require an incoming student to declare a major until the end of the freshman or, in some cases, even sophomore year. Others attempt to structure the first year’s coursework schedule so that it makes changing majors relatively simple and straightforward.

Not every college handles students’ uncertainty about their major field as deftly, and prospective students should be aware of this. Students switching majors in those schools can expect scheduling glitches, delays and increased costs.

Economics plays a significant role in the fundamental decision about a college education and the major field of study selected: What do you want out of it? Increasingly, the answer seems to be “money,” with “employment” a close second.

Colleges and universities are keenly aware of those goals and have been touting their monetary and employment benefits for decades. The level of long-term satisfaction that a student will have with the college education received, though, is highly dependent on how seriously the school takes its other educational responsibilities.

You don’t have to be a moral philosopher like Adam Smith to see the reason why. The more that students, parents, colleges and universities focus on money and employment, the narrower the gap becomes between college and trade school.

From a practical standpoint the problem with that is economic, not moral or philosophical. The closer and more responsive that higher education becomes to the job market the more focused and specialized it becomes, making it vulnerable to rapid obsolescence.

It is very difficult to predict the skills needed in the job market a year, five years or ten years from now. Government agencies are notoriously wrong in their predictions, and neither colleges nor economists are much better. Employers themselves are great at predicting job skills needed in the next year or so. After that they’re in the same boat as everybody else.

One aspect of the forecasting problem involves the market for technical skills. It turns out that a lot of today’s unfilled technical jobs, so very much in the news, require very specific skills. If you don’t write code in Sasquatch 4, for example, they don’t want you; end of story.

That kind of mismatch is the nemesis of the technical school approach. It is a constant struggle not just to keep up with employers’ needs but to intersect with the uncertain future job market at the same time your students finish acquiring the needed skills.

The advantage of a college education in today’s workplace is, or should be, the perspective, knowledge, efficient skills acquisition and appreciation for learning that only immersion in an academic setting can give you. On the business side, the real difference in long term performance among companies is still how they are managed, not the technologies they develop or bump into — and an ever-tighter focus on specialized skills will not supply that management.

On the personal side of choosing a major, a recent study found that fine arts majors, whose job prospects have been a running joke for decades, turn out to be working in their field at much the same rates as others with more “practical” degrees. Not only that, they appear to be happier and more satisfied with their work and their lives than their more practical peers.

Whether choosing a major field or choosing to change it, the goal should be to bring the student’s abilities, goals and heart into alignment. Then the education will have lasting value.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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