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Choosing the Best Major for the 21st Century and the Quest for Relevance


The New York Times ran a story on Sunday entitled Making College “Relevant.”  The thrust is that consumers of higher education (i.e., primarily parents, but also students) are demanding clear links between the education one purchases and the job one lands after graduation.
In some ways this makes perfect sense:  a college education is a huge investment, so shouldn’t there be a focus on returns on that investment?
Consumer demand for relevance has led to more majors in the following professional-oriented majors:

  • business
  • health care related majors
  • anything having to do with criminal justice (call it the “CSI factor”)
  • hospitality related majors (ski resort management, for example)
  • a greater interest in entrepreneurship and small business development

At the same time, philosophy and classics majors have been eliminated at some universities, as demand has dwindled.
This focus on professional orientation is not necessarily a bad thing.  Some students do well to focus in on learning discrete skills and functions. Furthermore, I don’t think it is necessary for every university in the country to offer every possible major:  some universities tend to be more professionally-oriented than others.
But as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, just because a student is not “professionally oriented” at age 18 does not mean they will never have a profession.  Further, some statistics indicate that each of us will have a variety of professions over their lifetimes.  So while a “relevant” major may prepare a student for their first job or even their first career, no one can predict the ways in which the economy will change, a person’s priorities or interests may change, or whether that major will be any use ten, fifteen, or twenty years later.
Furthermore, employers are not clamoring for graduates with these “relevant” degrees.  For them, just having a degree of any kind is the preliminary qualification for many jobs.  And according to one study, employers are most interested in students who can communicate well.
Read this snippet from the NYT article:

There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”
“It’s not about what you should major in, but that no matter what you major in, you need good writing skills and good speaking skills,” says Debra Humphreys, a vice president at the association.

The organization has conducted focus groups with employers before and heard the same thing. With the recession, she says, they weren’t sure the findings would hold. “But it’s even more intense. Companies are demanding more of employees. They really want them to have a broad set of skills.” She adds that getting employer feedback is the association service that “college leaders find the most valuable, because they can answer the question when parents ask, ‘Is this going to help in getting a job?’ ”

In my view, a student’s major doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things.  I’m happy to accommodate a student’s particular interests or strengths or predilections.  And I encourage them to pursue the things that interest them, because often those interests will help a student persevere through to graduation.  I know religion majors that are now heart surgeons, history majors who are entrepreneurs, international relations majors who are teachers, education majors who are managers, and engineering majors who are writers.
I also ask parents if they are engaged in the field in which they originally trained.  Most often, they are doing something wildly different (and unexpected and unplanned) than what their college major might have indicated.  That’s as it should be.  People grow and change and evolve over their lifetimes.
I make a living helping students (and their families) map out their college plans.  I’m happy to help them construct those plans based on current interests and needs.  I do remind folks, however, that interests and needs do change, and that taking the long view can lead to equally good–or even better–outcomes.
Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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