Here are some strategies for navigating the system.
A friend of my daughter graduated this year with a practical accounting degree because her parents refused to pay for college if she went ahead and pursued political science, which is her real passion. Some parents have told me that they believe that their children should start at a community college if they can't figure a career path while they're still in high school.
My advice to moms and dads who are stressing about college majors is to take a chill pill. Chances are that even the rare 17-year-olds who are absolutely positive that they want to be financial analysts, biologists, artists or something else, are going to change their mind once in college. And, frankly, that's what college is supposed to be about â€” exposing students to possible career paths.
Parents are surely focusing more on their children's future careers because of the depressed job market. The unemployment rate for new college graduates is 9.1 percent, which is the highest it has been in recent years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26 percent of Americans, ages 25 to 34, aren't working.
Because of the heightened interest in careers for young college graduates, I'm sharing six things that you need to know about college majors.
- Pick a major that requires math.
If students want to earn the biggest bucks, they better consider calculus easy. The 20 best-paying college degrees in 2011, according to PayScale, Inc., the go-to source for employee compensation, all required advanced math skills. Engineering monopolized 13 of the top 20 degrees. The only business degree that cracked this list was finance at No. 20.
- Don't assume you need a business degree.
The job market is crawling with business majors, which is the most popular degree on college campuses. Twenty one percent of students graduate with a bachelor's degree in business. Students mistakenly assume that they need a business degree to succeed in the work world, but look around at your own coworkers. I bet many of your colleagues weren't business majors.
Business has taken a hit lately from studies that suggest that business students learn the least in college. That was one of the conclusions of a blockbuster book, Academically Adrift, which has created quite a stir in academia. In a new report from the National Survey of Student Engagement, which focuses on best practices for teaching undergrads, business majors studied less than other college students.
Not pursuing an undergrad business degree can actually boost the chances of getting into MBA programs. At some schools, less than 25 percent of students have an undergrad business degree.
- Consider less popular majors.
What employers really want, according to workplace surveys, are college grads who can think effectively, communicate and write. Students can obtain these skills from any major, but plenty of research has concluded that students who earn degrees in the liberal arts enjoy a better chance of meeting these job requirements.
The liberal arts, such as history, anthropology, languages and philosophy, aren't as popular, but they can provide an edge for students who want to pursue them because schools need enough students in, say, French or theater, to keep professors busy. The admission dean at the University of Rochester once told me that philosophy majors are â€śgoldenâ€ť at his school and have consequently received more merit aid. Philosophy majors, by the way, include former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Supreme Court justices Stephen Bryer and David Souter, President Bill Clinton and, going way back, Thomas Jefferson.
- Use a college major search engine.
Teenagers who aren't sure where to find schools that offer a particular major can use the federal College Navigator (just Google the term). I recommended it to a teenager who wanted to pursue a film degree but didn't think she could get into highly competitive schools like UCLA, New York University and University of Southern California. She used College Navigator to find other schools that offer some type of film/video degrees, including American University (D.C.), Bennington College (Vt.) and DePaul University (Ill.).
- Bone up on majors.
For teenagers clueless about what they'd like to major in, I'd highly recommend checking out College Majors 101 (www.collegemajors101.com), which is a great resource. On the website, you can find in-depth explanations of majors from sports medicine to dance, career paths, prominent employers, students associations, publications in the field, as well as videos of students and professors sharing their experiences with the major.
- Aim for variety.
College-bound students are not familiar with most subjects that universities offer because they haven't been exposed to them in high school. Most high school students, for instance, have probably never taken a class in linguistics, sociology or anthropology. I once heard an environmental science professor at Wayne State University observe that students rarely start off in college interested in this major because they've never been exposed to it before. The best way to overcome this disadvantage is for students to take a wide variety of classes when they start college.
Lynn O'Shaughnessy is a college consultant, author and speaker. She writes three college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch, U.S. News & World Report andTheCollegeSolutionBlog.com.