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College over Major, Major over College?

college vs major

In our previous post, we have weighted the advantages of college degrees against their costs and tried to determine whether higher education is the only way to a satisfying carrier. Now, assuming you are set on getting a degree, let's look into what you should focus on – your major or the school where you will get it.

"Why is this question important at all?" you may ask. "Isn't it pretty straightforward? You have career plans. You zero in on the intended major and look for a school that ranks best for this major. Piece of cake!" Unfortunately, it's not as easy as you think!

Why Some Are Getting Skeptical About the "Right Schools"

The 2019 college admission scandal revealed that parents can go as far as bribery and fraud to get their offspring into the highest-ranking schools. Their belief that the best school guarantees the brightest future was so strong that they have faked test results and athletic records of their children only to secure a place in an Ivy League school for them.

However, the scandal only heated up the controversy already surrounding the college ranking system that many claim to be inflated. As for the low admission rates of prestigious schools, some call them out as a marketing ploy of college officials to create an appearance of scarcity and manipulate potential applicants.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy, the author of The College Solution, is very skeptical about the opportunities that the high-ranking schools like Ivy League universities and other prestigious colleges open to their graduates. She doesn't believe that the payoff is worth all the fuss, stress, and debt that parents and students put themselves through "because somehow these are magical schools. If your child gets in, their lives will be paved with gold."

Liz Weston, Nerdwallet's columnist, cites a 2014 study of 30,000 graduates that has found no correlation between their college's rating and their future job satisfaction and happiness.

Other critics call the established college rating system deeply flawed and say that majors matter much more than schools. As Paul Hill, researcher and founder of Job Search Intelligence, puts it, "A kid with a degree in cybersecurity is going to come in at three times the salary of someone who graduated from Harvard with a soft degree, you know, liberal arts, humanities, whatever." He insists that "the skillset is what matters, not the (school) name on the diploma."

Why School Still Matters

However, not everyone agrees with this criticism. After all, a Harvard graduate with a degree in cybersecurity will take the cake any day. In fact, all Ivy League schools have excellent computer science departments – and all other departments for that matter. They have better funding, better research programs, and better opportunities to offer their students. They rank high for a reason.

Another dent in the "major over school" argument is made by students themselves. Do you know what the most popular major on their applications is? For many schools, it's… "undecided." Even students who do indicate their intended major often change it several times. Being in an all-around high-ranking school, they don't miss out on anything by switching their academic focus. However, should they choose their school based solely on its rank for their focus subject, they may find changing major a considerable downgrade.

Paul Tough, a journalist and the author of The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, has spent six years studying the college admission process in America. He criticizes the system for favoring the rich and says it is not built on merit.

The truth, however, is somewhere in the middle. Of course, high-income parents have more possibilities for setting their children up for an affluent future. They can afford better-equipped schools with more advanced programs to choose from, like additional calculus courses, which eventually boost admission chances. They can also provide access to tutoring before standardized tests and creative writing help during the admission season. That privilege allows them to meet the requirements of highly selective schools and get in.

True, but it doesn't change the fact that those who do manage to get in have much higher chances of prosperity as adults. Even the proponents of "major over college" admit that highly selective schools significantly increase income outlook for disadvantaged students. The picture becomes crystal clear when you look at the numbers.

Attending an Ivy League school or another highly-selective college as opposed to no college at all increases the chances of getting into the top income quintile. According to Raj Chetty, professor of economy at Harvard University, students from high-income families are four times more likely to become high-earners. In comparison, for students from low-income families, this factor is whopping 14 times! This is nothing short of life-changing – even if not exactly paved with gold.

Not surprisingly, in the top 50 colleges that pay off the most, the highly selective institutions like Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, University of Chicago, and the like, take the first ten places. That is why, if a student is a high-achiever, all the pains to get him or her into the prestigious school are definitely worth taking – barring the illegal ones, of course. Moreover, one should not forget that many Ivy League schools are need-blind or offer robust financial support programs for high-achievers from low-income families.

Still, even if the college you are aiming for is not from the Ivy League and the ilk, it matters which one. That much can be said with confidence if one looks at the upward social mobility ranking of US schools. Some colleges are just better at launching their graduates from poverty into prosperity year after year – regardless of major.

Where you go to college definitely matters. If you think that Ivy League is out of reach, look at the schools that rank best for upward social mobility – not for the discipline you intend on majoring in.

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