Don't Make a Major Mistake: How to Choose a College Degree

I was in college in the late 1970s, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and selecting a major was relatively simple - there were no exotic degrees available such as Casino Management, Biosystems Engineering, Culinary Science or Digital Arts.

The stakes weren't as high, either. The average cost of tuition alone in 1980 for a 4-year public institution was about $10,000 total, compared to today's price tag of $64,000. That, coupled with the challenge of finding a job, any job, in our current economy can make choosing a degree that is marketable yet intellectually stimulating a challenge.

A recent NPR story highlighted the lack of guidance that students face; college advisors generally will help with requirements for graduation, but offer little advice for long term employment prospects for a given major. The piece mentioned a new report from Georgetown University that focuses on college majors, unemployment and earning potential. Anthony Carnevale, one of the authors, says, "It is time in the American education system, given its cost, given the fact that most of us now require it to get a decent job, to align it much more carefully with job prospects."

The answer may be in a bill called The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would require universities to reveal the earnings and types of jobs of the school's alumni. Sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), this legislation would allow students to make critical decisions based on facts.

Like most proposed legislation, however, the chances of it passing are slim. By happy chance, however, the Denver Public Library can suggest many comparable resources:


Occupational Outlook Handbook - From the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the OOH profiles hundreds of occupations and descibes what they do, how to become one, median pay, job outlook and contacts for more information.

Occupational Outlook Quarterly - Practical and straightforward information on career and work related subjects. View "snippets" of articles before downloading the lengthy PDFs. Don't miss "You're a What?" for inspiration if you crave an unusual job.

Worst College Majors for Your Career - Learn why Kiplinger wants you to think twice before majoring in Anthropology.

State Occupational Projections by Projections Central - Long term projections of occupations for each state (short term projections coming soon).

Princeton Review Career Profile - You have to create a free account for this one, but it's worth the extra effort - choose a profession and see A Day in the Life (which features interviews with people on the job) as well as Quality of Life, Present & Future and Facts & Figures.


College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs: The Actual Jobs, Earnings, and Trends of 50 College Majors (2012) by Neeta Fogg

10 Best College Majors for Your Personality (2011) by Laurence Shatkin

Panicked Student's Guide to Choosing a College Major: How to Confidently Pick Your Ideal Path (2011) by Laurence Shatkin

Book of Majors 2013 (2012) by the College Board

Encyclopedia of Careers and Vocational Guidance (2011) by Ferguson Publishing

Written by Lisa on June 10, 2013


Leigh Ann on June 10, 2013


Thank you, Lisa--what a timely blog. Seems like there are so many young people today searching to discover what it is they are to be. Many I think are in despair, wondering what they are going to do to pay off student loans or make their way towards independence in this challenging economy. Now there are no excuses! the library has lots of great free resources (notably the ones you've listed) to help them find their way.

Sarah on June 11, 2013


Hey, I majored in anthropology and look at me now!

Robin F. on June 11, 2013


Thanks, Lisa! I will share this with my teenager.

PowerToThePeople on June 13, 2013


My concern with this type of data from "Worst College Majors for your Career" and others articles and books is that it is narrow in scope and based on fearing present economic factors. Many people both prospective employees and current question what type of environment they want to spend their work day in. Much of what is researched and written about careers and earnings is very superficial and quite disconnected to the actual work world. Please warn all your readers to use any of this data sparingly and be very critical of what you read specially in this field.


I agree, Power, and thank you. Those unemployment numbers by major don't actually differ all that much, and nobody wants to spend their career doing something that they hate.

Andrew on June 18, 2013


When I was in high school 20 years ago, a couple of tools that were very helpful were the Strong Interest Inventory (SII) and the Campbell Interest and Skill Survey (CISS), two computerized assessment tests. My guidance counselor had me take the tests and then reviewed the results with me. I still have these test results, and they still reflect very accurately the kinds of work that still interest me and those that do not interest me. The survey of my skills is no longer accurate since I now have many more skills after 20 years of experience. But the interest inventory results had very good predictive accuracy (at least for me) and I wish I had taken them more seriously when choosing my college degree. I made a "major mistake" and had to drop my first college major because the first major that I chose was in a STEM field that was not well suited for me. It took me longer than four years to earn my degree because I switched majors (and schools).

A couple of years ago I read a blog post by Robert Hogan on "Workforce 2018". Hogan is a psychologist known for his work in personality testing and assessment, and his blog post mentions five critical competencies from the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS):

1. Being able to identify and allocate resources
2. Being able to work with others
3. Being able to acquire and use information
4. Being able to understand complex inter-relationships
5. Being able to work with a variety of technologies

If a person continually develops these skills and can prove to employers that she or he has demonstrated these skills in the past, then that person will be highly employable.

There are many ways to develop such skills, and a college degree is not the only path. As Hogan points out in his blog post, most of the occupations with the greatest projected job growth increase through 2018 do not require a college degree. This is something everyone should know and consider before attending college.

I think that everyone would benefit from very strong guidance counseling in high school. All high school students would benefit from guidance in shaping long-term developmental goals based on understanding their interests, skills, strengths, and the widest possible range of resources and options available to them. The NPR story quotes Georgetown University researcher Anthony Carnevale as saying that such guidance is not as common as it should be: "The United States really has no counseling apparatus. We have [300] to 400 students for every counselor in high school."

Aaron Duncan on July 12, 2013


I think that the gov't should pass that act to keep students away from some of the worst college majors out Just so the students fully know what they are getting into. I guess this is a part of for-profit schools plan though. Being a recent college grad this year I am truly seeing how wise I hope my decision was with my degree choice.

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