College students trade dreams for paychecks

College student dream
Students have their hearts increasingly set on their paychecks and not the footlights, a new report finds.
Credit: Thinkstock

Satisfaction in the pocketbook is trumping personal fulfillment for incoming college freshmen, according to a new study.

ACT, the nonprofit testing company that helps students prepare for college, released a report last month regarding how today’s students choose a major. It found that close to a third of incoming freshmen are enrolling not in a field that interests them, but rather one that will help them land steady, well-paying jobs after graduation.

It sounds like a practical — though less than exciting — college plan, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wise move.

This isn’t the first time this trend has surfaced. “It’s interesting that this phenomenon is happening again,” says organizational psychologist Dr. Billie Blair. “It was a prevalent practice 20 to 30 years ago when so many were encouraged to go into medicine because of the excellent pay.”

A steady paycheck is a wonderful thing, especially right out of college. It’s important for freshmen to remember, too, that their sanity and happiness also come into play when choosing a major. “No doubt about it, in today’s economic environment students need to be practical in selecting majors,” states Carol A. Sitterly, dean for academic success at American International College. “But they also need to select majors and career fields that they can feel passionate about over the next 40 years of their working life.”

Keeping that passion alive and active isn’t always easy when graduates are struggling to find work. Like so many things in life, being able to strike the right balance can make all the difference.

“The critical question is whether [students] can find a space in that world that they are good at and that they can get excited about even as they chase a paycheck,” says Rita McGrath, associate professor at Columbia Business School.

McGrath reminds us that no matter how much time a student puts into the decision-making process, things can change while at school. “Very few students find that their careers unfold as they predicted, so the choice of major is probably a much smaller determinant of ultimate outcomes than we might assume,” she says.

Switching majors

The dreams versus paychecks debate isn’t just for incoming students, it also affects current students who are thinking about changing majors. The best way to figure it out is with the resources that are already available. “Students thinking about changing majors should take an interest inventory and talk with an academic or career adviser about what jobs match their interests,” says Sitterly.


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