With two teenagers at home, I spend a lot of time thinking, reading and worrying about college.
So it was with great interest that I picked up Michelle Singletary’s “Color of Money” column in last weekend’s Post. The Business section headline “Picking a college major that will pay” was irresistible.
The column brought to light a fascinating study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce titled “Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal.”
The study looked at the starting salaries and unemployment rates for college graduates in a number of fields, and the column included a chart that I was drawn to like the proverbial moth to the flame. Where did my kids’ potential majors rank?
I had long known that my Christopher, a self-proclaimed geek and Apple nerd, would be a computer science major, and I had assumed that would guarantee him a good job straight out of college.
My Andrew had been clueless about what he wants to do but has demonstrated real talent in writing fiction. Not long ago, he asked me a very pragmatic question: “What would I do, Mom, with a degree in creative writing? What kind of job would I get?” When I replied that he could teach English, perhaps even at St. John’s College High School, which he now attends, his face lit up. He had a plan.
But the chart from Georgetown was frightening.
Computer and math majors face an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, not much better than the national average. Education majors face less trouble finding jobs, with a 5.4 percent unemployment rate. But once they get jobs, as Singletary points out, “their earnings are also low and only improve marginally with experience and education.”
By that analysis, my children would get four-year degrees and be back living with me because either they couldn’t get jobs or ones that paid a living wage.
But should I counsel one son, who has an intrinsic ability to figure out how things work, that he should go into “agricultural and natural resources” because it has a much lower unemployment rate? And should I tell a teenager who already writes better than his mom that engineering is the way to go because it guarantees a higher annual gross income?
What would have happened to me if my blue-collar, immigrant parents had balked when I said I wanted to go to Northwestern University, a hugely expensive school, to study journalism? Even then, it was a poor-paying dinosaur of an industry.
By the Georgetown calculus, my parents made a bad decision. When my first job out of school paid me less than what a year’s tuition cost, that calculus seemed all but confirmed.
I am now 25 years into my career, working at one of the leading media companies in the country and making more money that I ever would have imagined I would. To what do I attribute that success? I love what I do.
In these economic times, it’s hard not to obsess about whether our kids are employable. The Georgetown report, and Singletary’s column, raise important economic issues that should be part of any family’s college decision-making process.
At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, let’s not let the need to earn money squelch our children’s desire to do great work in jobs they love. College doesn’t just set the course for their life’s earning potential; it sets the course for their lives.
I’m drawn again to the words of Steve Jobs, when he delivered the Stanford commencement address in 2005. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
That may not make economic sense. But neither did my parents’ decision to send me to Northwestern. Sometimes the parenting decisions that don’t make sense are the ones that make all the difference.
Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.