How Did You Select Your College and Major?

Must be a coincidence, but lately I have been hearing about a lot of people that are going back to school in their 20’s and 30’s to get additional degrees in an effort to increase their income. Those college majors people picked when they were 17, 18, or 19 apparently aren’t bringing home the bacon or maybe their career’s earning potential isn’t in line with their goals such as getting married and buying a house, and maybe having a couple kids.

It’s pretty crazy to think that many of us make decisions at age 17 that greatly impact the rest of our careers. Unfortunately, I don’t remember high school teachers stressing picking a major that will pay the bills or going to the state school to save money.

Personally, I began thinking about college seriously as a sophomore in high school. I always did well in math and science and knew if I wanted to do well in college I should probably pick a major which encompasses one of those subjects. As I got more serious about the college hunt in my junior year, something took over my thought process – money.

I knew that I would receive some family support for college but, more likely than not, I would have to foot a majority of the bill. I purchased college guides which ranked schools by major, location, cost, projected income, and other categories to perform my analysis. I was pretty disappointed with the average wages the college guides noted for many majors. My father was a blue collar worker and never stepped foot in a college and I knew his salary was higher than a lot of the majors that my book was projecting. That made me realize that if I was going to spend four years attending college and paying for it, I would need to get a major that would make it worth it financially.

After I conducted all my research I knew it would be a good fit for me to major in a business or engineering field. Both had a math component, and both had good earning potential. I realized I enjoyed the stock market and reading about businesses a lot more than I enjoyed learning how to code (I dropped that awful class in high school) or physics. Eventually during my freshman year of college I settled on an accounting major. It was pretty evident that making six figures by age 30 or sooner was definitely doable, especially with a CPA designation. I had always done well with standardized testing, so I figured this would be a good route to take. Without ruining the surprise, majoring in accounting has been a great move for me, and I’m glad I considered the potential earning power of my degree when I was a teenager.

For those who want their college majors to pay off for them, I would select a major that does two things. First, find a major that you like (not love). Second, find a major that has a six figure earning potential within 10 years of graduating. Now if you can find a major that leads to a career you love and are passionate about, AND earns six figures, well then that is a no-brainer to go after. The last thing you want is a major that leads to a career that doesn’t pay more than a career you could have gotten without the degree, especially if you aren’t passionate about it.

How did you select your college major? Did the degree’s earning potential get factored into your decision? Did you ever go back to school because your first degree didn’t bring home the bacon?

32 thoughts on “How Did You Select Your College and Major?

  1. Mr Crazy Kicks

    I took a similar path. While in high school I looked up the average salaries for different majors. Back in 2000 the highest salaries went to computer engineers, some were even getting six figures out of school. I chose a state school to attend because it was the cheapest school with the best engineering recognition.

    Of course when I graduated the dot com bubble had burst. Luckily engineering degrees are still useful, and I ended up working in aerospace. Not quite the career I initially invisioned, but it was fun and I still made enough money to FIRE at an early age 🙂

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  2. Brian @ Debt Discipline

    I never considered looking at salaries or job market when I headed to college. I don’t recall anyone suggesting it either. It was over 20 years ago. I got involved with video production and film in my teens and really enjoyed it. I majored in TV/Film production in college. I was hired to a local cable company and after a year or so got involved in the IT side and have been in IT ever since.

    It is something I’m stressing to my three children. Two will be heading to college next year. We have looked at their majors and what the market will look like for them post graduation. I think its so important to do this type o research today, given the time commitment and cost associated with a degree.
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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      I think it’s great you’re being active and instilling this in your kids before they head off to college. They’ll definitely be thankful once they graduate for sure.

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  3. Norm

    I took a very similar path. I had a high school accounting course under my belt before I started college. I had an idea that I would be an Information Systems major in college, with Accounting as my backup if I didn’t like it since I knew I liked accounting from the high school course. I didn’t like IS, although I did like coding, I just knew that was going to get too difficult for me. So I switched to accounting sophmore year.

    It definitely was a conservative play career-wise. I took my high school accounting class in the first place because the teacher used to work in the unemployment office, and he was selling the class with “I never saw an accountant in the unemployment line.”
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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      Accountants unite! That’s a great quote by your teacher. I’ve known accountants that have gotten laid off and all have new jobs within 60 days (even the very poor performers).

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  4. Full Time Finance

    Honestly, while I agree you need an eye on whether a job has good ROI, I don’t think having a 6 figure job potential is really a key decider. If it were no one would ever be a teacher or other worthwhile profession. It’s a balancing act imho. You shouldn’t get an English degree unless you have plans for a job where your income will pay back the investment, but not everyone wants or needs to make 6 figures.
    Full Time Finance recently posted…The Origin StoryMy Profile

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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      I totally agree FTF. If you are passionate about a career and want to do it for a long time, then the money is not as important.

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  5. Telyn

    I chose my major based on who would pay me to go to school. In undergrad I had a full scholarship plus guaranteed employment while I was in school and after I graduated. The earning potential wasn’t quite six figures though. Instead of going straight to work, I continued on to graduate school and finished up my PhD mostly because it was also fully funded and I also received a stipend. I expect to earn six figures within a year, which would be two years after graduating.

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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      That’s a great way to go about it as well that I didn’t talk about. If people are paying you to go to school AND you get a high salary out of the gate, that seems like a no-brainer as well. Best of luck.

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  6. Mr SSC

    I started college undeclared and stayed that way until I had paid for a few semesters out of pocket and realized it was idiotic to stay in school with no plan. I took the same amount for a semester of school and went hiking to figure out what I wanted to do. I settled on environmental science to “help the environment” since I liked hiking and being outdoors so much.

    First year into that major I took a couple of requisite geology classes and was hooked. I switched my major to geology with an env. science minor. No thought to income levels, rather it seemed interesting. Once out of undergrad my plan was to get into a good recognizable grad school as most geology majors need a masters to be employable at an income above $45-60k. I worked with a soils engineering company for ~6yrs before hitting that ceiling, still my favorite job I’ve had. When I looked at getting an engineering undergrad to stay in that field, I knew staying the course and doing grad school was the smarter/shorter choice.

    I got into CO School of Mines and then realized petroleum geology was even more fun. Ironic that this started wanting to help the environment right?

    Anyway, I knew oil geo’s got paid well, but the industry is cyclical, as I’ve seen twice in my 9 yr career now. Fortunately, no layoffs yet and I’m about 2-3 yrs from hitting FIRE.

    Mrs. SSC went to school and ultimately her Phd so she could teach but ended up in the oil industry after we met as interns. She left that job earlier this year for a 6 figure pay reduction – so she could finally teach at college/graduate level. She’s been loving it and will probably continue to do that for a while after we hit FI. Like another 5-10 yrs wouldn’t be out of the question for her.

    I ahve multiple friends that got history majors or the like and after 5 yrs or so of struggling in random jobs, went back for accounting, computer science, or similar just to get a better paying job. Fortunately, my circuitous path paud off, but it doesn’t always end that way. 🙂
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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      Sounds like you somewhat stumbled into a higher paying career. Can’t complain about luck! Thanks for sharing your story.

      Reply
  7. Mrs. Picky Pincher

    This is suuuuuuch a good point. I’m amazed that we’re expected to decide what to do with our lives from ages 16 – 18. I went to public school, which basically just stressed scores on standardized testing–it was never about producing functional adults with a grasp of what they want to do with their future.

    My major kind of fell in my lap, actually. I attended a fancy-pants (expensive) private college for their theatre program. Once I realized I hated the people in the program and that I didn’t want to struggle for an income, I changed my major. I ended up graduating with a double major in Speech and Media Studied. It sounds like a BS major, but it was essentially a marketing degree.

    I was able to double my income within two years of graduating and make more than the market average just four years after graduation (I also graduated early), so it worked out well!

    Sometimes we have to pursue stupid ideas to realize our true path. THANK GOD I didn’t pursue theatre professionally. But when I was in the program it seemed like no one there was career-minded. They weren’t thinking about life after graduation and bills they’d have to pay. I think that’s dangerous.
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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      You make a great point. Even if you don’t go down the “right” path early, as long as you change direction it is quite easy to recover as long as you figure it out early enough. Funny how some things we end up doing we kind of “stumble” into. Thanks for sharing!

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  8. Matt @ The Resume Gap

    It’s insane how many monumental life and financial decisions we have to make at age 16 or 17. I got lucky that my interests were aligned with a career with good earning potential. I’m not sure what I would have done had that been different!

    I would add one more thing to your checklist: make sure you’re aware of the degree requirements to advance in your field of interest. I’ve known a lot of people whose Bachelor’s degrees just aren’t sufficient for fields like social work or psychology, where a Master’s or PhD is pretty much required for anything but a grunt work entry level position.
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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      Your last point is spot on Matt. In some fields a Bachelor’s is all you need to progress to the highest levels, while others you can’t even get an interview. Happy New Year!

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  9. Josh

    I majored in Political Science because I simply needed a 4-year degree for my intended career field and it sounded the most appealing. I have been graduated for 9 years now and have since changed jobs and now using a portion of my college degree. Having a generic liberal arts degree has been somewhat of a bummer and we want our children to be intentional about their degrees and not go to college just to get a degree like my wife & I did.

    I think it the tough part now is that a lot of Millennials have earned a Master’s to be more qualified. Even to be a public school teacher in certain districts you essentially need a master’s degree to get hired.
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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      Sounds like you’ll do a great job of giving your kids direction when the time comes. Leading the way will make a great difference for them and put them ahead of the game.

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  10. TJ

    I had no idea what I wanted to do, I was never pressured to pursue the highest paying majors, my parents just wanted us to do something that made us happy. So…I majored in performing arts music. Looking back, I think that maybe wasn’t the best decision, but does that mean I want to live in a world lacking of art? Not really. My major was fun. I learned a lot. I had a lot of personal growth in the college experience as well.

    Definitely wasn’t all that practical though and I wonder if I would have picked something better if I was paying for it. My dad reminded me at Thanksgiving that I didn’t even want to go to college in the first place, so if they didn’t pay for it I probably would have just not gone and made it work.. Makes sense. I occasionally think about getting a more practical degree, but the ROI doesn’t work in most cases when I do the math. I guess I feel comfortable that in a dire financial emergency, I can always move to a developing country to stretch my dollars further. I highly doubt it will come to that though.
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  11. Steve from Arkansas

    Definitely a vocational degree is the surest plan. I lobbied my kids strongly to avoid low value liberal arts degrees and ended up with six degrees achieved by the three of them: BS Business, MS Adult Education, BS Chemical Engineer, Medical Doctorate, BS Biological Engineer, MS Civil Engineer. All three are gainfully employed and self supporting with nobody ever having lived in my basement. I also didn’t have to pay a cent for any of their education. There are a plethora of available scholarships for serious students at low cost state universities. I was an engineer myself and never worried a day about unemployment up to my choice to retire early a year ago. I still have my choice of good paying part time gigs because there are never enough technical people in this technological age. College is not a place to find yourself, it is a place to get ready to find a career that you will enjoy and that will pay you well.

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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      I kind of wish I had become an electrician. Would have been making a living wage at 18 years old. But I doubt I would have been as financially knowledgeable as I am now. But who knows. I may have stumbled on MMM or others anyways. Thanks for sharing Steve.

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  12. Dennis @ NestEggRx

    Great article and some very important things to think about. For example, my sister-in-law went to a small private college that I had never heard of. It cost four times the local state college and afforded her no advantages in her goal of becoming a kindergarten teacher. There really is no point in putting yourself behind the financial eight ball with a ton of debt when you can accomplish the same thing without the burden.
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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      If you want to be an investment banker, sure go for the Ivy/prestigious school. But if you’re going to be an accountant or teacher or nurse. Go to the state school and kick butt. You’ll have the same opportunities.

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  13. MrSLM

    I wanted to get into game development, so computer science as the way to go. Wasn’t completely random, had an idea of what they made, which was pretty good money. On top of that, the job seemed fun and interesting, at least to someone on the outside.
    MrSLM recently posted…Financial Update – December 2016My Profile

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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      I took CS in high school and didn’t like it at all. But a few kids in the class were doing it to get into game development. Not sure if that was a dream at the time or if they’re actually in that field now or not. Either way CS sets you up to make a nice wage throughout your career.

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  14. Financial Samurai

    Because my family didn’t have a lot of money (grew up in a townhouse, had an 8 year old Toyota Camry), I felt it was the responsible thing to:

    1) Go to public school (William & Mary)
    2) Get a degree that gave me a decent chance to make money (Econ major, Chinese Minor)

    Hence, my focus was practicality!

    Sam

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    1. Fervent Finance Post author

      I went to a public in-state school for accounting and don’t regret it one bit. Practicality worked in my favor as well.

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  15. Steve @ Think Save Retire

    Earnings potential was a huge factor in my decision to major in Information Technology. I was never all that great at math, so a Computer Science degree probably wasn’t in the cards. My true passion was photography, though, but getting a photography degree and sentencing myself to a lifetime of employment struggle and paying the bills was out of the question. In the end, a degree in IT was “good enough” to get my foot in the door and definitely prepared me for many years of earning a 6-figure salary.
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  16. Paul

    I wanted to get out of my state and kinda far away from home, while helped the location.

    My major was a result of a drift to business but a desire to avoid accounting (yes, I regret that!), which led me to finance. Much more lucrative than my initial thought, which was history!
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  17. Dividend Growth Investor

    Another CPA here. I started college majoring in Finance, but then decided to switch to Accounting. It seems to me that there are more opportunities for Accountants in the Midwest than Finance. I think I made a good choice. Most Finance opportunities seemed to be sales type gigs (like selling loaded mutual funds with high expenses to people)

    I think I always had some aptitude for numbers. The funny thing is that everyone in my immediate family has an accounting/business degree. Even one of my grandpas, who worked in Communist Eastern Europe 😉
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