Nearly 2 in 5 of American college graduates regret their majors – The Washington Post

What's Happening

The regretters include a healthy population of liberal arts majors, who may be responding to pervasive social cues. When he delivered his 2011 State of the Union address in the shadow of the Great Recession, former president Barack Obama plugged math and science education and called on Americans to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Since then, the number of new graduates in the arts and humanities has plunged.

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Meanwhile, nearly half of humanities and arts majors have studier’s remorse as of 2021. Engineering majors have the fewest regrets: Just 24 percent wish they’d chosen something different, according to a Federal Reserve survey.

As a rule, those who studied STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are much more likely to believe they made the right choice, while those in social sciences or vocational courses second-guess themselves.

Regrets have remained relatively steady since 2016, the earliest year for which we have consistent data. The most notable exception, education, went from below-average regrets before the pandemic to above-average regrets in 2021. Life sciences, on the other hand, have seen a steady and substantial decline in regret.

The annual Fed’s Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking also asks if folks regret the specific school they went to. Those in vocational programs are most likely to regret their school, while education majors are least likely.

Regardless of major, half of those who went to private, for-profit schools regret their decision, perhaps because students at for-profit schools are much more likely to struggle to repay their student debt. Similar regrets plague only 21 percent of those who went to public colleges and universities and 30 percent of those who attended private nonprofits.

In the decade since our national pivot to STEM, the number of people graduating with computer science degrees has doubled. Every STEM field notched significant gains. Nursing, exercise science, medicine, environment, engineering, and math and statistics are all up by at least 50 percent. Among the humanities, only two increased: cultural, ethnic and gender studies, and linguistics.

Schmidt said it’s possible that the nation’s pro-STEM campaign led many humanities graduates to regret their choice of degree in retrospect, even if a different major may not actually have improved their employment opportunities at the height of a global downtown. They were struggling, and their degree was an obvious scapegoat.

In an analysis published in the Atlantic a few years back, Schmidt noted that while culture wars and student debt didn’t explain the humanities data well — even Christian colleges and colleges with generous financial aid have seen declines — it does line up with a wave of younger millennials who, scarred by the financial crisis, are increasingly fixated on majors with better job prospects.

Over their lifetime, a typical history or journalism major can expect to earn about $3.4 million, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data from 2014 to 2018 by economist Douglas Webber, who is now with the Federal Reserve. A typical economics, biological sciences or chemistry major can expect to make $4.6 million over that same time, adjusted for inflation.

But those typical earnings hide that who you are matters just as much as what you study. Many of the highest-earning humanities majors earn more than the lowest-earning STEM majors, Weber’s research shows. For example, the top quarter of history majors earn $4.2 million over their career. That puts them above the bottom quarter of earners from even the highest-paying majors, such chemical and aerospace engineering.

Humanities specialists argue that these majors open up higher-earning opportunities later in life because they don’t lock students into a narrow programming language, certification or career path. The critical thinking taught in humanities courses allows students to adapt to jobs that may not have existed when they enrolled in college.

“Having training to ask hard questions is pretty significant, and that applies across all kinds of different career situations,” said Quinn Dombrowski, an academic technology specialist at Stanford University.

“When we work with undergraduates on digital humanities projects,” Quinn said, “it’s often easier to take a humanities undergrad and teach them just enough coding to do what they need to do rather than taking some of the CS majors who can do the coding in their sleep but don’t really think about the questions in the nuanced ways that we need them to.”