a theory of college majors

Yesterday, Jenn posted about the findings from the SNAAP survey, which show that many arts majors do rather well. While they don’t always have careers as practicing artists, they often have arts related jobs and have satisfactory post-graduation lives. This raises a question: what is the link between college major and post-graduation life course?

My hypothesis is that the jump from college major to post-graduation life is influenced by the following factors:

  1. Labor market credential: Is there an industry that the major trains you for? If so, how big is that industry? What is the career trajectory of people in that industry? Note: Such majors may not give you skills, just the credential (e.g., education).
  2. Ability signal: Some majors are harder than others. Some majors get you a better job because the major is a signal of high IQ/cognitive ability.
  3. Human capital: Some majors provide concrete job skill  (i.e., computer science).
  4. Taste: Some majors require that people have an intense taste for a subject.
  5. Precision: This is more ambiguous, but what I mean is that some majors require people to produce very precise outputs, which requires a very different mindset. For example, in the humanities, performing music is relatively clear cut, compared to writing an essay.

The implication of the model, controlling for other factors:

  1. For college majors that are credentials, we expect employment, income, and satisfaction for correlate with the financial health of the industry the major is tied to.
  2. The higher IQ needed for completing the major, the higher the income and lower unemployment.
  3. Income and employment will increase with the demand for skills that happen to provided by the major (e.g., computer science was a niche topic in the 1970s, but a money maker in 2000).
  4. Taste: Satisfaction with the major correlates with how much you have to love the major to pursue it.
  5. Majors that require precision have graduates with lower unemployment and higher incomes.

When it comes to understanding the link between major and behavior, it helps to sort through these factors.  I’d say the SNAAP results definitely reflect #1. There is now a fairly healthy arts sector in America that includes schools, museums, non-profits, curators, and other venues. Even those who have no desire to be an artist, might still pursue an art major as a credential. There’s also #4. People enjoy the arts a lot.

I think the visual and performing arts are different than many other humanities and social studies majors because of #5. While it’s hard to flunk someone for writing a vague essay, you probably wouldn’t far with a similar level of musical performance or figure drawing. To be even moderately successful in a traditional arts major, you can’t fake it. That ability to actually master a skill at a level that another expert (the teacher) can recognize as progress probably carries over into the jog market.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 25, 2012 at 12:01 am

5 Responses

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  1. This post is word salad.


    Peter Levin

    July 25, 2012 at 3:09 pm

  2. I think you ascribe entirely too much influence to choice of majors and omit far more influential factors influencing ultimate career and earning, including class background and character of school (status, mission, cost). Elite liberal arts colleges, for example, don’t offer nursing, business, or engineering majors to undergraduates, and a student can major in, say, Art History or American Civilization at such a place and end up as an analyst at Dow Jones. That sort of school doesn’t press students to declare majors early on, and students will have lots of info. on what may be the idiosyncratic nature of majors and faculty at that school. One small school I attended a hundred years ago offered an exciting religious studies major that was filled with courses on Marx and Freud, to cite one example. In religious studies at another school we studied God and Being.
    In contrast, at Big State University, like where I teach, students apply to a particular major–within a school (social science or computer science, for example), and generally take a hit on academic progress if they choose to switch to something else once they know something.
    I certainly wouldn’t suggest that choice or major or academic performance doesn’t matter, but I suspect it matters much more for some students (read: less affluent) at some schools (comprehensive, non-elite) than others.


    David S. Meyer

    July 25, 2012 at 5:21 pm

  3. David, this post only a theory about the correlation between major and some life course outcomes. Nowhere did I say that this was a complete explanation of education and life course outcomes. At best, this post merely addresses variation among college majors in terms of their life course.

    You and I both agree that family are important for life course, probably more than education, and that family can be an intervening factor when it comes to educational careers and outcomes. I think I am a little more skeptical about institutional effects because institutions have varied effects.



    July 25, 2012 at 6:29 pm

  4. “For college majors that are credentials, we expect employment, income, and satisfaction for correlate with the financial health of the industry the major is tied to.
    In many states, you cannot take any of the engineering licensing examinations unless you graduated from an accredited four-year engineering college. Seems reasonable… but at Lansing Community College, I had a physics instructor with a master’s in physics and master’s in mathematics. He moved to a state that let him take the mechanical engineer’s licensing examination. “Credentials” can be such an interesting word.

    A few years ago, I interviewed the classics department at the University of Michigan for The Celator. They told me that (1) they get a lot of science majors, pre-meds, etc., looking for a break, not something easy because Ancient Greek is not easy, but something different. They also said (2) that they find that law schools in particular like to see applications from classics majors because they stand out against the field of poli sci majors.


    Michael E. Marotta

    July 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm

  5. Came here via InsideHigherEd, and I just wanted to say I liked this post very much. Too often students, parents, and the general public expect a concrete, instrumentalist correlation between major and employment, and your post posits a nice theory of why that isn’t always the way the job market operates.

    One thing, though: actually, it’s very easy to flunk a vague essay. Take it from an English prof: precision matters in writing, too, and we know when you’re faking it.


    Dr. Virago

    August 3, 2012 at 11:44 am

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