Income or interests: Why students choose their major

Precious Henshaw, a senior food science major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, grew up wanting to be an artist.

“I really have no interest in what I’m studying,” she said. “It’s my parents who told me that art was a hobby, not a career, and they influenced me towards something in science. My mom said that if I was paying all this money to go to school for something, whatever I studied would actually have to be financially rewarding.”

And, to Henshaw’s dismay, data supports her mother.

According to’s 2014 College Salary Report, art majors can expect to make an average of just $36,100. That’s not even enough to cover the cost of a year’s worth of Henshaw’s out-of-state tuition.

With the rising cost of a college education, students no longer consider it a good investment to attend universities to traditionally train and culture their minds, and instead are opting for a more vocational curriculum in order to prepare for a specific career that will allow them to start paying off their loans as quickly as possible.

Michelle White, an operations and information management major, knew she wanted a career in business as a young girl in New York. Her father is an accountant, her mother a financial advisor, and her aunt works on Wall Street.

“I want to live a lifestyle similar to the one I have now,” said White, a senior in the Isenberg School of Management. “I know that’s going to make money. As much as I hate to admit it, that was one of the biggest factors for me when I decided what I wanted to do.”

Given White’s aspired lifestyle, she’s on the right track. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report titled Work-Life Earnings by Field of Degree and Occupation, people with bachelor’s degrees in business make among the highest average lifetime earnings, along with degrees in engineering, computers, and the sciences.

However, these high-paying majors fall much lower on a list of fields that students are actually passionate about.

In the College Choice Report Part 1: Preferences and Prospects, high school graduates in 2013 were surveyed to find out what they planned to major in and why.

It was rare that students pursuing business, engineering, computer, or science-related majors would use the word “passion” to explain their choice. Instead, those who were passionate about their field of study were predominantly English majors, as well as fine arts, humanities, and general arts.

This leaves it up to college advisors to help students find some middle ground.

“While we’re talking to students as advisors, we try to get a sense of what they know about themselves, what their interests are, and what outside forces are influencing that choice, whether that be family pressures, level of confidence, or willingness when it comes to risk-taking. All of those things really matter,” explained UMass Amherst Dean of Undergraduate Advising Dr. Pamela Marsh-Williams. “One of the first things we would help a student appreciate is that they’re going to grow and change over time.”

Austin Rowe realized the summer before his junior year.

“I thought I wanted to be a financial advisor at first, but I actually had an internship this summer and I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore,” said Rowe. “I was originally interested because of all the money to be made in that field. Now I realize that’s not a lifestyle I could see myself living.”

Rowe will study abroad next summer to see what other opportunities are out there. He still doesn’t know what he wants to do when he grows up, but he isn’t worried.

“I’ll figure it out. There’s a pressure on you right out of high school to have your life all planned out, and I think that’s why kids, like myself, gravitate to a high-paying job. After getting a taste of what my life would be like, I realized I’m more concerned with having satisfaction in my career. It’s not about the money anymore.”

Email Alex Francisco at [email protected].

Facebook Comments