The Student’s Guide to Choosing a Major – Best Colleges

  • 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.

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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

Changing 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:

Happiest Majors

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.

What’s your priority?

Some students pursue certain majors based on financial earning and benefits potential. Others focus less on salaries and more on launching a fun, meaningful in a career that interests and engages them while some choose to earn an advanced degree after graduation.

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)

Library Science
Major Subgroup: Education
Number of Majors: 1,098
Median Annual Salary: $22,000
Counseling Psychology
Clinical Psychology
Educational Psychology
Zoology
Composition and Rhetoric
Drama and Theater Arts
Foreign Languages
Early Childhood Education
Communication Disorders Science and Services

Additional Resources

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.

Quizzes

  • 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

Social Media to Follow

Facebook:

  • 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.

Twitter:

  • @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.

Mid-Career Professionals

Parents

Transfer Students

International Students

  • 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.

By Jennifer Pawlewicz
Jennifer Pawlewicz Career Engagement and Marketing Specialist Jennifer Pawlewicz