Is the Wrong College Major a Ticket to a Low-Paying Job?

Is the Wrong College Major a Ticket to a Low-Paying Job?
Is the Wrong College Major a Ticket to a Low-Paying Job?

The compensation experts at Payscale recently released a study on the best- and worst-paying college majors in America, and Lynn O'Shaughnessy of CBS Moneywatch reports that "Child and family studies earned the honors as the worst-paying college major. The average graduate earns a beginning salary of $29,500."

"What's equally discouraging is that the salary of someone in this field will barely budge after 15 years in the profession," writes O'Shaughnessy. "Food is another common theme for students who major in the worst-paying college degrees. Students who earn degrees in horticulture, dietetics and the culinary arts are more likely to end up struggling financially."

Other majors making the list of lowest-paying include social work, theology, education, interior design, and my very own: art history.

So is that it? If I, an art history major, am your kid, should you just bury your head in your hands and sigh at how pathetic my income stream is likely to be?

It's Not What You Learn, It's What You Do

I don't think so. T

his may seem like a pointless distinction, but consider this: The problem isn't that majoring in social work will lead you to not earn very much money. It's more that being a social worker will cause you to not earn very much money. Consider these big earners with no-so-big-money college majors: Martha Stewart (history), Carson Daly (theology), former Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin (theology), and Michael Eisner (English), and Suze Orman (social work).

In my book, Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parents, I examine some of the data on the impact of a student's choice of major on his careers earnings, and here's my conclusion: What matters isn't so much what you major in, but more what you chose for a career. For instance, one study found that history majors who pursued careers in business consulting earned as much as business majors. The reason that history appears to be a major that doesn't pay off is that so many history majors choose to enter fields that don't pay well.

University of Texas at Austin professor Daniel Hamermesh studied the earnings of college graduates by major and concluded that "perceptions of the variations in economic success among graduates in different majors are exaggerated. Our results imply that given a student's ability, achievement and effort, his or her earnings do not vary all that greatly with the choice of undergraduate major."

Follow Your Passion

Given that, this is my message for parents and students when it comes to choosing a major: Relax and go with what feels right, and never let tables and charts with average salary figures steer you away from majoring in something you're passionate about.

This advice will also come in handy if you're planning on attending grad school: The high GPA that so often comes with studying your passion will make it easier to get into top programs in many fields. Top business schools accept many, many students with liberal arts degrees. And you might even qualify for some scholarship money in the process.