College Part 1 - Helping your child choose a degree

This article will be the first of 3 (at least!) regarding choices our kids will face about college.  Part 1 is about how to choose a degree, Part 2 about how to choose a college and Part 3 about what we can do to ensure that our kids get into the school of their dreams (admissions).

Much of what you will read in the following paragraphs and articles will be based on the this premise:

The ONLY reason to pay for college is in order to get a better job.

Therefore, the degree our sons and daughters choose to major in for 2 to 4 (5?) years should be one that is well thought out and has a practical application once they graduate.  These days our children have an almost infinite number of degrees to choose from when they head off to college.  Some degrees are more valuable than others though.  Business is as excellent example.  When an employer interviews a new graduate for an open position in their company, if the role is not specifically for one department (marketing, accounting, etc) then the type of business degree becomes less important (often it does not even have to be a business degree). Most degrees will be considered equal for screening purposes in that case.  The prestige of the school, the GPA, extracurricular activities and internships will play a larger role in the process. Let's take that same application now for the same company but this time they need someone specifically for the marketing department.  Now, all the kids who majored in Marketing will have a slight edge in the process.  At the same time, the Marketing majors will also be able to apply for the first job which was not specific.  What if your daughter majors in Business Administration though and wants to apply for the marketing department job?  She will be at a disadvantage.

Here is another premise to apply to our children's college degree choices: The more specific the better.

As in the business example described above, a more specific degree will offer a better chance of passing screening for twice as many jobs as the general alternative.  Rather then Business Administration, go for Accounting,  rather than Biology choose Molecular Biology, rather than Physics choose Nuclear Physics.  Specifics are good but which degree is best?  To answer this refer to premise number 1.  Which job is the goal of the degree.  Don't let your children tell you that they want to "leave their options open" and therefore do not need to choose a major yet.  It is OK to change their minds, grownups change their careers all the time, but all freshman should start with a plan.  My plan was get a liberal arts degree and then wait for the offers to start pouring in.

When I was applying for colleges there seemed to be a different article in the newspaper every day saying that employers were frustrated because they could not find staff with good, basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic.  This was like inside information to me at age 17 and with my parent's well intentioned, yet incomplete guidance I narrowed my applications to those colleges with strong liberal arts programs.  What the articles and my parents and anyone else who I spoke to at that time failed to explain (or perhaps they did not know) was that while employers were certainly frustrated with the lack of basic skills in the marketplace, that was not the whole story.  Employers did not just want someone who could write a grammatically correct report, they wanted an accountant who could write a report or a computer programmer who could write a report.  The basic skills provided for by a liberal arts education are not enough on their own.  An employer who needs an accountant when given a choice between an excellent liberal arts graduate with no accounting experience and an accounting major with bad syntax, will choose the bad syntax 10 out of 10 times.

Just because an area of study is interesting to your son, does not necessarily mean it is a good choice for his career.  Kids don't know enough about the world to make these decisions independently.  As parents we should take an active role in their careers.  When your enthusiastic offspring comes home with the college application forms for the Omaha School of Medieval Weaponry,  sit down with him and ask him if he knows what job he will get after graduation.  Agree to support him if he can find 3 people who graduated from the same degree and are now working in the job he expects to get. This is a great exercise and has a number of positive benefits.  First, chances are most 17 year old kids will not exert much effort finding someone who has done what they are trying to do.  It is a test of their enthusiasm to see if they actually follow through and look for proof of concept for their choice of degree.  Second, if he does look and your son cannot find anyone who is gainfully employed he may give up on this particular hobby job (there is a good article about hobby jobs here called the Danger of the Dream Job Delusion) and find something more practical.  Third, if he does find someone he can then follow up and learn what it took for that person to be successful.  Perhaps it was the degree in Medieval Weaponry followed by a PhD and three books on the subject before his mentor could move out of his parent's house.

To help our children with this choice, start with the jobs.  There is a list of 8 jobs that are still likely to be hot 20 years from now in my article Why do kids all want to be baseball players and astronauts.  Which degrees would be best to get into those jobs?  In an article in the New Yorker, Louis Menand (Harvard Professor) pointed out that, "As work becomes more high-tech, employers demand more people with specialized training." Technical degrees will be more in demand as our universities continue to pump out liberal arts grads in increasing numbers.

You will find that often the degree matters, not the courses.  This is another interesting anomaly about college.  Just like college grades matter and graduate grades do not. For undergraduates (and graduates also) the courses one takes are not important to a hiring decision.  The only exception to this rule is the thesis.  If your child is applying for a job as a junior equity analyst in a securities firm then it is great if their senior thesis was an in depth study on stock prices and how to predict them.

Here are some questions to start the conversation about degrees with your child.  Remember, it is OK to help.  Kids do not need to make the same mistakes we made in order to learn.

  1. What job are you going to apply for when you graduate?
  2. Is this the best degree for that job?
  3. Do you know anyone who has a job like that now?  
  4. What was their degree and which college did they go to?
  5. Is there a more specific degree you can apply to that will give you more options?

It is interesting to note that the degree you choose becomes less and less important the further you advance in your career.  When your daughter is contacted by a recruiter to become the next head of GE they will not care whether she graduated with a history degree or molecular biology.  They will also not care what her GPA was at that point.  The fact that she graduated from Harvard however might tip the scales in her favor if she is competing against another candidate for the job from a lesser known school, assuming all other aspects of the two careers are similar. More on choosing a college in Part 2.


  1. The Headhunter Dad's DadJune 12, 2011 at 8:49 AM

    I guess this is the first time I have to disgree with Headhunter Dad. I don't agree with the basic premise
    The ONLY reason to pay for college is in order to get a better job.
    I believe the main reason to go to college is to get educated for life. Therefore a broad liberal arts education is my preference for undergraduate school. One can specialize later.

  2. That is a fair comment, and I agree that a liberal arts education can help to make one's life more fullfilled. However, I don't believe it is necessarily going to help kids get a better job AND I don't think one needs to go to college (and pay 4 years of tuition) to get a liberal arts education.

  3. A few friends have suggested to me that it is unrealistic to expect a 17 year old to know what they want to do with the rest of their life. I guess that is the gist of this article. The ones who do make an effort to figure it out earlier will have a competitive edge.

  4. There is a very good article about the long term employment and financial consequences of a college major on the Wall Street Journal site below:

  5. "In a society where we’re sold on the fact that college is essential whatever the cost, it makes sense that those who don’t consciously choose their education would be resentful of the package of goods sold and the debt to follow."

    Calibrating and Circumventing the Cost of College, by Tim Sullivan

  6. How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America

  7. The 10 worst college majors for your career!


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