Choosing a College Major: What You Need to Know


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"Buridan's ass" is a well-known (and unfortunately named) philosophical paradox where a famished donkey sits equidistant between two similarly delicious bales of hay and, unable to find a rational reason to select one over the other, ultimately starves to death. Strangely enough, this rather absurd and morbid 14th-century tale is relevant to the dilemma faced by many college students today.

Never before in human history have young people had such an endless array of desirable career paths as they do in 21st-century America. The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes over 1,500 academic programs offered by the nation's colleges and universities. These include everything from your run-of-the-mill liberal arts, social science, and STEM majors to your more unique upstart disciplines such as Blacksmithing (Southern Illinois University), Puppet Arts (UConn), and Race Track Management (U. of Arizona). Given this cornucopia of potential career paths, it is little surprise that settling on a major is a difficult enterprise.

The Age of Exploration

The concept of a four-year undergraduate degree is becoming an urban legend on the scale of Bigfoot and the Chupacabra. At non-flagship public institutions nationwide, only 19 percent of students graduate on-time. At flagship institutions, the number climbs to just 36 percent. Shockingly, the six-year graduation rate across all public and private colleges and universities in the United States is only 56 percent. There are a multitude of factors behind these abysmal numbers, but the process of settling on a major is right at the forefront.

Research tells us that the best laid plans of high school students frequently falter early into their post-secondary experience. It is estimated that 80 percent of college students will change their major at least once—the average student will switch a stunning three times before graduating. Even at Princeton University, a campus filled with some of the most driven and focused young people in the world, 70 percent of this elite student body elect to pull the old major switcheroo.

Let's pause to point out that switching a major is not inherently a bad thing, and is, in some cases, an unavoidable outcome. Not every high school senior can be expected to map out, irrevocably, hir or her entire academic and career path. It is perfectly normal for one's interests to shift and develop as new experiences unfold, and nothing is worse than sticking with an academic path you know is the wrong choice. As the saying goes, "It's better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than halfway up one that you don't."

While changing majors is inevitable for some, others end up abandoning their initial pathway due to poor planning, lack of information or following misguided outside influences. Math and Science departments tend to see the largest exodus as freshmen receive first and second semester grades far lower than anticipated. These students typically did not seek out the most rigorous options at their high school to ensure that they could handle college-level STEM coursework. Student pursuing a STEM field should avail themselves of AP opportunities and/or take courses at a local college through dual enrollment. Your first college-level course should not feel exponentially more challenging than those experienced in high school.

Another popular category of major-switchers selected their initial area of study for the wrong reasons. The majority of high students, almost two-thirds, select areas of study that do not match their interests—an extremely odd phenomenon and one that is ultimately counterproductive. Studies have repeatedly shown that students who pick a major in an area of high-interest are more likely to finish their degree in 4 years. Seems obvious enough, but many adolescents feel tremendous pressure from their parents to pursue economically viable and/or prestigious fields. Interest, passion, and enjoyment take a backseat to projected future salary. Yet, outside of a few fields, salary data based on your undergraduate major can be highly unpredictable.

Starting salary data

Articles ranking the highest-paying college majors are easy to find but are typically of little help in selecting a career. Take a quick glance at any such list, and you'll notice that just about all of the degrees producing the handsomest return on your tuition dollars end with the word "engineering." This is great news for anyone interested in becoming a petroleum, computer, chemical, civil, electronics, nuclear, mechanical, or electrical engineer and wholly irrelevant news for the other 99 percent of prospective college students. The fact that the average petroleum engineering major makes $103,000 right out of college does not mean that all you future humanities majors out there should abandon all of your former passions and immediately register for Fossil Fuels 101. Planning the extraction of crude oil from subsurface reservoirs may be lucrative, but it isn't for everyone.

It goes without saying that the decision on what to do with the next 40 plus years of your life should not be driven entirely by average starting salary figures. However, students should be cognizant of their post-graduate earning potential when selecting what type of school to attend. To ignore this factor can be a set-up for financial distress later in life — stress that with proper planning, could have easily been avoided.

College grads in the bottom quartile of earners actually make less than the average high school graduate. Some of the lowest paying majors include Early Childhood Education, Drama/Theater, Social Work, Library Science, and Psychology. Students entering these fields are wise to avoid incurring unnecessary debt in pursuit of their degrees. The same goes for graduates in STEM fields that do not typically lead to high-income positions right out of college. While engineering and computer science grads enjoy solid starting salaries, meteorology, biology, and zoology majors begin their careers paid below the median college grad. As stand-alone credentials, many undergraduate diplomas, even from elite schools, do not alone qualify someone for a high-paying professional job. It is in these situations that salary data broken down by college major becomes particularly hard to interpret.

Majors dependent upon grad school

Many bachelor's degrees have limited value on their own but can be parlayed into relatively lucrative careers through continuing one's education. Psychology is perhaps the ultimate example of this phenomenon. Those with bachelor's degrees in clinical or counseling psychology enter the field making less than $25,000 on average. Most will find entry-level employment in the behavioral/mental health field, working in positions such as a drug and alcohol counselor, probation officer, group home coordinator, or social worker.

While accounting majors can call themselves "accountants" upon graduation, psychology majors need to pursue advanced degrees to claim such a credential. Master's level psychologists will more than double-up their bachelor's-only peers and those who eventually earn a Psy.D. or Ph.D. will see average earnings above $75,000.

If you plan on entering a graduage school-dependent field, make sure you don't break the bank on your undergraduate education. Students with ambitions to enter fields such as law or medicine should prioritize undergraduate affordability and performance over prestige, given the costs of a professional degree and given the secondary role that college brand plays (to grades and test scores) in the graduate admissions process. Aspiring doctors and lawyers, along with would-be professors and scientists, should also realize that graduate credentials, not undergraduate name, will determine their job prospects.

Don't end up a starving donkey

As with any element of post-secondary planning, decisions about your college major should be made within the context of the bigger picture of your career and life goals. It's important to be aware of financial outcomes for graduates in your chosen area, but future salary considerations are often highly dependent on future educational attainment. Your own internal compass should guide the major selection process more than any outside voice.

When it comes to post-secondary choices, young people today possess a level of choice that would make Buridan's donkey's head explode. If you make your choice strategically and follow your instincts, you'll be able to successfully pick out the "bale of hay" that best fits into your life plan.

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website—www.collegetransitions.com—to learn more.

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About this Blog

College Transitions

Expert advice for finding the right fit


About This Blog

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Learn more at collegetransitions.com

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September 2019

Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: 24.00

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
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Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: 24.00

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
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Celebrate Latino culture in Durham.

Cost: Free

Where:
Compare Foods Parking Lot
2000 Avondale Dr.
Durham, NC
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Enjoy sweets from over 20 vendors for humans and pets.

Cost: Free

Where:
City Market
214 E. Martin Street
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Jay's Italian Ice
Telephone: 919-780-4169
Contact Name: Jay Jones
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Discover Historic Yates Mill—a place of business, community, and exciting local history! Watch a brief slideshow, then explore the inner workings of the mill itself and witness the power of...

Cost: $5/Adult, 4$/Senior (60+), $3/Child (7-16), 6&Younger Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
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See Peppa Pig and her friends embark on a new adventure in this live stage show. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $29.50 and up

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
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See Peppa Pig and her friends embark on a new adventure in this live stage show. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $29.50 and up

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Practice your ABCs and develop your fine motor skills through games and hands-on activities. Play a letter game and go on a scavenger hunt!  For ages 18 months–3 years (with an...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Crowder County Park
Telephone: 919-662-2850
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These programs are open to students 6–12 years old. Parent/guardians are welcome to stay for the program or drop-off. Preregistration is required. Discover the amazing world of mushrooms and...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Join park staff for an informal fishing experience for the whole family. Bring your own poles or borrow one of ours through the Tackle Loaner Program. Bait and basic instruction are provided. All...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Robert Gibbs discusses his latest book, "Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation." Ages 8-12. Purchase the book from Quail Ridge to reserve two seats for the event and a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209 Lassister Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Join us to make moveable miniature skating figures that light up!  Space is limited. To register, call 919-245-2532. Grades 3-5.

Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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We are Voted BEST consignment sale in the Triangle and TOP 10 in the NATION!! Our sale features Children's Clothing including a wonderful boutique section, costume section, and coats section,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Cary Towne Centre
1105 Walnut St
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: Kids EveryWEAR Consignment Sale
Contact Name: Gail Walker
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Enjoy a free sunset movie by the picturesque Lake Raleigh. Take a picnic blanket, lawn chairs and a non-perishable food donations (human and pet) on Fridays in September to NC State's...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Raleigh Meadows
Campus Shore Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27606
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Sponsor: VisitCentennial
Telephone: 704-651-3179
Contact Name: Jude DesNoyer
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Each year more than 30,000 visitors come to BugFest to experience over 100 exhibits, crafts, games and activities. This year's theme is beetles. Interact with entomologists and other scientists...

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Telephone: 919.707.9800
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Each year more than 30,000 visitors come to BugFest to experience over 100 exhibits, crafts, games and activities. This year's theme is beetles. Interact with entomologists and other...

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Telephone: 919.707.9800
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Take part in a pop-up Stroller Barre class followed by a nature scavenger hunt for kids and socializing for moms. Suitable for pregnant mamas. Take a sturdy stroller (no jogger needed!),...

Cost: $5

Where:
Piney Wood Park
400 E. Woodcroft Pkwy
Durham, NC  27713
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Sponsor: FIT4MOM West Raleigh Durham
Telephone: 984-329-5970
Contact Name: Jenine N Pearson
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Give rugby a try. Take part in tag rugby pick-up games every Saturday morning at Baileywick Road Park, near the Second Shelter.  No experience necessary. All ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Please join us for our 27th annual Triangle Festival of Hope & Walk to De-feet Dementia at Knightdale Station Park. The 1-mile walk through the park, or 1/4 mile shorter version, will begin...

Cost: Free

Where:
Knightdale Station Park
810 N First Ave
Knightdale, NC  27545
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Family fun for all ages includes more than 100 delicious food and craft vendors, free children's activities, live demonstrations and all genres of music from local and regional bands. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Main Street Creedmoor
301 N. Main St.
Creedmoor, NC  27522
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Sponsor: City of Creedmoor
Telephone: 919-764-1013
Contact Name: Angie Perry
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We are Voted BEST consignment sale in the Triangle and TOP 10 in the NATION!! Our sale features Children's Clothing including a wonderful boutique section, costume section, and coats section,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Cary Towne Centre
1105 Walnut St
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: Kids EveryWEAR Consignment Sale
Contact Name: Gail Walker
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Visual artists from near and far will showcase their work, and 75 performing arts groups provide continuous music, dance and entertainment throughout the festival including extended Saturday...

Cost: $5 suggested donation; free for children under 12

Where:
Durham Arts Council
120 Morris Street
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: Durham Arts Council
Telephone: 919-560-2719
Contact Name: Susan Tierney
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Step back in time with our 19th-century costumed interpreters and watch the millstones at work grinding corn into meal. Tour fee: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60 & over), $3/Child (ages 7-16),...

Cost: $5/Adult, 4$/Senior (60+), $3/Child (7-16), 6&Younger Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Enjoy local bands, arts and crafts vendors, car show, kids' area, fun contests and games, plus a barbecue cook-off contest featuring veteran cooking teams.

Cost: Free

Where:
River Park
114 E. Margaret Ln.
Hillsborouh, NC  27278
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This family-oriented event includes corn milling demonstrations and costumed tours of Yates Mill, and other event activities including a fun children’s scavenger hunt activity, live music and...

Cost: Free, though there is a $3-5 fee for mill tours

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
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For almost 200 years, farmers brought their wheat and corn to what is now Yates Mill to have their grains ground into flour and meal. Today, you can stop by the Yates Mill visitor center to see a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Take the family for Caribbean food, live music, a Kids Zone, bounce house, face painter and more. 

Cost: Free

Where:
West Point on the Eno
5101 N. Roxboro St.
Durham, NC  27704
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Step back in time with our 19th-century costumed interpreters and watch the millstones at work grinding corn into meal. Tour fee: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60 & over), $3/Child (ages 7-16),...

Cost: $5/Adult, 4$/Senior (60+), $3/Child (7-16), 6&Younger Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

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Celebrate diversity in Wake Forest with live performances, traditional cuisine and family entertainment. 

Cost: Free

Where:
E. Carroll Joyner Park
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Live bands showcase this event that also features a kids zone, vendor village and food trucks.

Cost: $11.25 – $20

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre's Rose Garden and Stephenson Amphitheatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Live bands showcase this event that also features a kids zone, vendor village and food trucks.

Cost: $15 advance tickets, $20 at the door. Free for ages 5 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre's Rose Garden and Stephenson Amphitheatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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The Teen Advisory Board invites you to meet up with other gamers to mingle, snack, and test your skills for prizes! Guests are welcome to bring their own controllers/fightsticks. Register by...

Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

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East Cloud Kungfu hosts a Parent's Night Out event, featuring a safe environment for kids as they about the wide world of kungfu.   Check it out!...

Cost: $25 first child, $20 each additional child

Where:
East Cloud Kungfu, LLC
5655-A Western Blvd
Raleigh, NC  27606
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Sponsor: East Cloud Kungfu, LLC
Telephone: 252-646-7053
Contact Name: Imari Colon
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The Clayton Center presents country crooner Billy "Crash" Craddock in concert. Sing along with Crash as he belts out his biggest hits, including Knock Three Times, Rub It In, Ruby Baby, Broken...

Cost: $25 plus taxes & fees

Where:
The Clayton Center
111 E. Second Street
Clayton, NC  27520
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Sponsor: The Clayton Center
Telephone: 919-553-1737
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