Choosing a major is one of the first important decisions a college student must make. The pressure feels enormous, especially because children get asked over and over, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as they move up the ranks of school. Many simply brush off the question by responding that they don’t know just yet. The options seem endless, and life after school seems unimaginable and so far away. Now when the question about majors comes from a college advisor and not your aunt at a family gathering, it can’t be taken so lightly.
A lot of college students choose a major, get a degree, get a job and are happy with their decision and outcome. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
The Federal Reserve Survey of Household and Decision-making conducted a survey of the satisfaction level of college graduates based on the major they chose. The results show which choices were the most regretted majors.
Overall, nearly 40% of people in the United States would choose a different major than what they had. Just less than half of graduates in the humanities and arts wished they had picked a different major, making it the most regretted field of study.
The next-most regretted major is social and behavioral studies at 46%. For comparison, only 24% of engineering majors would change their major if given the chance.
Humanities majors used to make up over 12% of the allotted bachelor’s degrees each year according to a study done by Benjamin Schmidt, a data miner with a Ph.D. in history from Princeton. However, that number recently dropped all the way down to less than 7% in 2021. Not only are people regretting this major nowadays, but the major has also become less popular.
Catching up to the major in popularity are degrees like computer science and engineering. Computer science has risen slightly over the past few decades, and in 2021 about 6.5% of bachelor’s degrees were in computer science.
Engineering, on the other hand, has seen a resurgence after taking a dip. In 1984, nearly 6% of bachelor’s degrees were in engineering, but the number dropped all the way under 3% by 2004. Now, engineering degrees are back to 4.5% of all bachelor’s degrees.
STEM degrees in general have been on the rise in terms of quantity, with more students flocking to these programs based on how many graduates are satisfied with their choice. Over the past decade, computer science has seen an increase of over 100% in terms of the number of degrees. Other STEM majors that Schmidt saw make a noticeable increase were math and statistics, engineering, and computer and electrical engineering.
Humanities majors that have dropped off in the last decade include religion, classical studies, history, philosophy, and English language and literature.
Interestingly enough, the majors regretted most by graduates often correlated with lower average incomes. Georgetown University did a study on “The Economic Value of College Majors.” The median humanities worker with a bachelor’s degree earns $49,000 annually. A bachelor’s degree in art history also typically earns $49,000.
Meanwhile, an engineering degree yields a median salary of $79,000. That is not an insignificant increase by any means.
According to this study, “At the entry-level, health majors earn $41,000 annually, while humanities and liberal arts majors earn $29,000 annually.”
Computer science is one of the fastest-growing majors in the last decade according to Schmidt, and the Georgetown study may give us a little more clarity as to why people are choosing it. The median earnings for a bachelor’s degree in computer science are $83,000. Computer engineering yields even more at $87,000.
The Survey of Household and Decision-making revealed another reason why lower-paying majors may be specifically regretted right now. A large percentage of people who have attained bachelor’s degrees or higher are either currently in debt or were once in debt.
In the 18 to 29-year-old range, 58% of people who graduated with a bachelor’s degree have dealt with student debt. The same percentage of people in that age group who have finished a graduate degree or higher have also dealt with student debt.
As for 30 to 44-year-olds, over 60% of people who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher have had student debt. On the other hand, only 32% of people over 60 that have attained a bachelor’s degree have gone into debt to cover their expenses. As for people over 60 with a graduate degree or higher, 39% were in debt at some point or still are now.
The survey also looked at the number of debt adults currently have in the United States. Over a quarter owe $10,000 or less right now. One out of every 10 adults in the United States has over $100,000 to pay back in student loans. With how expensive college is and the burden of student debt, it’s not too surprising that so many regret their major.
Participants in the survey were also asked if they believed that the benefits of a degree were higher than the cost of getting the degree and vice versa. Of those who have a bachelor’s degree or higher and are currently in debt, 46% say that the degree is worth it. 35% say that the cost is too much and 19% claim that the cost and the benefits are the same.
Over 70% of college graduates who fully paid their debt or never had debt say that the benefits of a degree are higher than the cost. But compared to those with debt, this perspective contrasts sharply with graduates who still owe money. Less than half of indebted college graduates see the benefit of attaining a degree. These numbers show that money instead of course content may be the reason graduates reject their majors
Stress from high college debt could very well lead someone to the feeling of regret if they know that another major would have yielded them more money, and therefore helped them out of debt quicker.