Skip to main content

Study What You Love or Study What Will Make You Money?

The Bulwark

February 23, 2024

There’s a better way to think about—and talk to young people about—college.

When it comes to education, adolescents and young adults face a dilemma: to follow their intrinsic interests or to choose a course of study they think (or have been told) will secure their economic futures. For most, to ask this question is to answer it. Forget your passions and focus on the jobs. A recent survey from Dreambound, a company that provides rapid job training to unemployed people, finds that economics über alles may not be paying off.

Dreambound asked a thousand American adults about their education and career satisfaction, and while the sample isn’t statistically representative of the nation as a whole, the results are broadly suggestive. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said they regret their choice of major. Millennials seem especially prone to second thoughts, with about half saying they wish they’d studied something else. Across demographic groups, pay isn’t the main factor feeding these doubts. While 23 percent cite a lack of job opportunities and 21 percent report low pay as the source of their misgivings, 56 percent simply wish they’d studied subjects that actually interested them.

Is it possible, then, that students (and their families) are focusing on the wrong things—or, if not, getting them in the wrong order?

Admittedly, for families who endured the global financial crisis and then the economic spasms of the pandemic, it can feel like economic security is the only thing that matters when it comes to choosing a college major. There’s also the question of comparative advantage: As any economist will tell you, while the average remuneration for those with, say, economics degrees might be much higher than those with, say, fine arts degrees, not everyone is equally suited to studying economics just as not everyone is equally talented at painting or sculpting. People tend to like what they’re good at, so there may be a degree of economic sense in choosing a major that’s also a passion.

The full answer isn’t found by focusing on the “either” or the “or” but to look at both. While parents and students need to keep one eye on the market, Dreambound’s poll results suggest the other eye should point to less material considerations. For instance: What does a successful life look like, and what is the role of education in achieving it? Other than financial prosperity, what should one aim for?

Having enough money is certainly part of the equation, but for those cocooned within a $28 trillion (and counting!) U.S. economy and protected by a vast social safety net, actual material deprivation is, for most people in most places, a rare experience, which helps explain why one of our top public health problems is obesity.

Maslow posited that having adequate “food, shelter, and warmth” was the beginning, not the end of the good life. At the top of his hierarchy was “self-actualization.” Defined as achieving one’s full potential, it is likely the bigger long-term challenge for many Americans. The failure to take self-actualization seriously may be a contributor to some of the social turbulence we’ve experienced in the past decade as materially sated people start asking, Is this all there is? The advent of generative artificial intelligence seems poised to raise the stakes further by taking on tasks formerly thought of as being the exclusive domain of human beings and especially those human beings who already have high levels of education and skills.

There’s a danger here of relapsing into the worn-out debate over the value of college degrees. Of course college isn’t for everyone. More than 30 percent of students who start college don’t finish, and many of those wind up with a pile of debt and limited prospects for paying it off. We need education and training pathways tailored to the enduring interests and needs of individuals rather than the prejudices and prescriptions of the moment.

In his recent book, The Career Arts, higher-education expert Ben Wildavsky argues that integrating broad skills gained through a college education with narrower skills gained through short-term credential programs is the best pathway to long-term financial success. There’s wisdom in that—because it’s practical and because the variety of subject matter and skill development inherent in such an education will also help engender the kind of flexibility needed in an increasingly complex and unpredictable labor market. College-and-credential study also constitutes what economist Nouriel Roubini has characterized as a hedged position with respect to earning power vs. intrinsic interests. A hedged skill portfolio gives students some of both, thereby spreading risk.

For those of us with the opportunity to influence younger students and workers, let’s strive to put to rest the corrosive question, “What are you gonna do with that?” which is designed to challenge and undermine rather than encourage and develop. Young minds engaged in the difficult task of aligning interest, ability, education, and opportunity deserve serious, compassionate, and engaged advice but are too often left only with shopworn clichés. The people we love deserve much better.