- Students typically choose their major based on economic factors.
- It’s important to also explore majors that reflect personal values and traits.
- Demand for different academic majors will vary according to industry growth.
- Students can supplement their major by pursuing a minor field of study.
Choosing a major field of study can be a difficult decision. In fact, 61% of college graduates would change their major if they could go back to school.
Today’s college students are encouraged to weigh several factors before choosing an area of focus for a four-year degree program. Important considerations include:
- overall program cost
- salary expectations
- employment rates in the field
- advanced degree opportunities
Ultimately, students must decide which field will offer the best return-on-investment for their postsecondary education.
This comprehensive guide uses measured student outcomes, job market statistics, and other higher education data to explore the various benefits and drawbacks of the nation’s most popular undergraduate major subjects.
Trends in College Majors
According to a recent report from the University of La Verne, roughly half of all college freshmen enter college undecided about their major. Additionally, as many as 70% will change their major at least once during the course of their four-year degree program; the majority of these students change their major at least three times.
Many students worry that changing their major will delay graduation and, as a result, significantly increase their overall tuition costs. However, a study at Western Kentucky University found that shifting major fields had a “minimal impact” on planned graduation times. Furthermore, the data showed that full-time students who changed majors at least once reported higher graduation rates than those who remained in the same field for their entire bachelor’s program.
Most Popular Majors
Students typically choose their major based on career-related factors, such as job availability and employment rates in their proposed field. The following table lists the most popular majors among today’s college graduates; the data was originally published in a report from Georgetown University titled, ‘The Economic Value of College Majors.’
Majors With the Highest Employment Rate
Employment rates will differ between professionals who enter the workforce with a bachelor’s degree and those who go on to earn a master’s or other advanced credential. Studies have also found that employment rates varied between new graduates and bachelor’s degree-holders with multiple years of professional experience. The following table from Georgetown’s ‘Hard Times’ report shows unemployment rates for new bachelor’s graduates, experienced bachelor’s graduates and master’s degree-holders:
College alumni can be a helpful source of information for students who are exploring different areas of study or considering a change in their major focus. These individuals offer valuable insights about their major for both current students and job-seekers.
A recent poll by Payscale found that degree-holding alumni generally recommended majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; other areas with high approval ratings included business, accounting and finance, nursing and health care management. Alternatively, majors related to the arts, humanities and social sciences held low approval ratings among college alumni.
Additionally, the following table shows Payscale’s alumni recommendation ratings (%) for 25 of the most popular college majors:
Choosing a Major: Economic Factors
Every student uses a different set of criteria to determine their major field of study. The questions below help students consider majors based on earning potential.
Which Fields Have the Most Earning Power?
Georgetown’s ‘The Economic Value of College Majors’ report noted that roughly 80% of today’s incoming college freshmen ultimately choose a major based on potential salary and benefits. The study also found that the average median annual salary across bachelor’s graduates in all majors was $33,000 for employees 21-25; additionally, the median earnings for high school graduates with no college education was $22,000. For employees aged 25-59, the median annual salary was $60,000 for all bachelor’s degree-holders and $36,000 for those with a high school diploma and no college.
Which Careers Pay the Highest/Lowest Salaries?
Generally speaking, careers in medicine, business administration and STEM-related fields offered the highest annual salaries; meanwhile, careers in social sciences, arts and humanities paid the lowest wages. A report from FiveThirtyEight found that the following 10 positions were the national leaders in median annual earnings among recent graduates. Please note that all but one of these positions is in a STEM field, and that eight of them are concentrated in engineering.
Highest Median Annual Earnings Ranked by Sub-Major (2014)
- Petroleum Engineer
- Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 2,339
Median Annual Salary: $110,000
- Mining and Mineral Engineering
- Metallurgical Engineering
- Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
- Chemical Engineering
- Nuclear Engineering
- Actuarial Science
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Mechanical Engineering
- Electrical Engineering
Alternatively, the following table lists FiveThirtyEight’s 10 lowest paying professional roles in terms of median annual salary for newly graduated students. In contrast to the first table, only one of the following positions is related to STEM-related studies.
Lowest Median Annual Earnings Ranked by Sub-Major (2014)
- Major Subgroup: Education
Number of Majors: 1,098
Median Annual Salary: $22,000
- Counseling Psychology
- Clinical Psychology
- Educational Psychology
- Composition and Rhetoric
- Drama and Theater Arts
- Foreign Languages
- Early Childhood Education
- Communication Disorders Science and Services
This final section contains a list of professional websites, blogs, social media outlets and other links that will be useful to students who are currently exploring their major options.
- What’s My Major?: This 35-part questionnaire features an interactive format that highlights suggested major fields for each answer.
- Career Quiz: Each question in The Princeton Review’s 24-part quiz invites participants to choose their preference between two seemingly random occupations; the ideal major for the candidate will be derived from these choices.
- The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Personality Test: As mentioned above, this survey determines suitable career paths by assessing the candidate’s preferences when it comes to social interaction, information processing, decision-making and perception.
Ask the Experts
- ‘Choosing a Practical Major’: Philip A Bean’s column for The New York Times includes a three-step plan for selecting a major field that balances financial viability and personal preference.
- ‘How to Choose, Declare a U.S. College Major’: This comprehensive guide from U.S. News & World Report offers tips for picking a major and then making an official declaration for a degree in the chosen field.
- ‘3 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Minor’: This column from Time Magazine weighs the pros and cons of pursuing a minor degree for students in different majors.
Social Media to Follow
- Chronicle of Higher Education: The official Facebook page of the popular, college-oriented online magazine.
- Payscale: Payscale’s Facebook page offers up-to-date information salary and hiring trends that can help students choose a suitable major field.
- @College_Board: A helpful, all-encompassing resource for outgoing high school seniors and current college students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
- @College_Experts: This Twitter handle administered by current college advisors offers academic and professional advice to postsecondary students at all levels.
- @StephenRothberg: Get current news about academic trends from the president of College Recruiter, a comprehensive online job board specializing in niche positions.
- ‘Should You Go Back to School if You Hate Your Job?‘: Kathy Caprino of Forbes addresses mid-career workers who are unhappy in their current role and considering an educational jumpstart.
- ‘Mid-Career Professionals: It’s Time to Go Back to School‘: Economic and professional perks of a graduate degree are examined in this U.S. News & World Report introspective by Margaret Loftus.
- ’10 Hot Careers for New and Mid-Career College Graduates‘: Software development, data mining and elementary education are some of the professions discussed in this 2013 article from The Washington Post.
- ‘Parents Going Back to School: Set the Stage for Your Kids’: This article from Rasmussen College looks at the benefits — as well as the potential downsides — for parents who are interested in enrolling in a college program.
- Grants for Women Going Back to School: This list from Student Grants includes options for mothers who are considering an undergraduate or graduate-level degree program.
- Student Parent Success Initiative: This project from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research offers supportive services to students with dependent children.
- ‘On Transfer Students and Transfer-Friendliness’: This FAQ from the Chronicle of Higher Education offers tips for students who wish to transfer college credit.
- ‘Firsthand Advice on College Transfers’: Former student Samantha Wilson draws on her personal academic experiences for this New York Times column.
- ‘Advice to Transfer Students from a Transfer Student’: Another article written by an experienced transfer student, this blog offers 10 specific tips for those who wish to move credits from one school to another.
- InternationalStudent.com: This comprehensive website offers information on study abroad programs, scholarships, tax-filing procedures and other areas of interest for students who earn credit overseas.
- ‘8 Campus Resources for International Students’: This list from U.S. News & World Report profiles academic advisors, career centers and other on-campus services for foreign learners.
- International Student Insurance Blog: This helpful resource guides students through the ins and outs of obtaining insurance coverage while enrolled in overseas college and study abroad programs.