By Alex Brophy
A college graduate with a bachelor's degree will earn $2.3 million over their lifetime, according to Georgetown University research. That's 84 percent more than someone with only a high school diploma.
It's a big financial return, but college is also a big investment, especially when you're not quite sure what to major in. So, it's understandable if you're asking: what are the most popular college majors, and which ones will give you the best chances of maximizing your investment?
Luckily, there are a few ways to start answering those questions. Here are six tips to get you started:
1. Find out what makes you tick
The first, most important step in your higher education journey is to think carefully, and honestly, about some of the key things that most excite you, and what you'd like to spend years — and lots of money — studying. What subject makes you tick? "Figure out what you might like to learn about and become an expert on," says Elizabeth Atcheson, founder of Blue Bridge Career Coaching. "Generally speaking, people who know more get paid more."
Think about what majors typically lead to which jobs. At the same time, keep in mind that your college major won't necessarily limit career options: employers are becoming more flexible about who they hire, and you may find that your major could lead you into an unexpected job. "I know plenty of English and psychology majors who went into business or law or medicine," says Anthony Badillo, lead planner at investment firm Gen Y Planning. His company, for example, was founded by an executive who majored in theater.
2. Consider career earnings potential
A key step in better understanding the potential financial return on different majors is knowing how much you can expect to earn after you graduate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a great place to start. "Get an idea of possible occupations that various majors could lead to," Elizabeth says. "Then, use the Occupational Outlook Handbook to browse through 800-plus occupations, and note the income associated with each of those occupations."
It's also worth checking out online salary trackers — many of which are free.
3. Look at industry growth rates
You should also consider which industries will create the most new jobs in the future. For example, college majors in growing industries like alternative energy, technology and health care will probably increase your chances of landing a meaningful job in those fields when you graduate.
The BLS has compiled a list of what are projected to be the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the coming years, including the median pay of each. You should definitely seek out advisors and mentors—both in your target industry, and at your school. Professors, college advisors, and the career counsellors in your school guidance center can all be great resources.
4. Match your college with your major
When choosing a major, be sure to factor in the cost of your education. If your goal is to become a teacher or social worker, consider the long-term implications of paying back student loans to attend an expensive private university. And research student loan forgiveness programs that help people enter public service careers.
Thinking about career in engineering, which tends to offer relatively high incomes? Definitely consider schools that have well-regarded engineering programs with large alumni networks that you can tap into, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or a state school, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Reach out to talk with people who work in fields you might like to enter, to ask them what they like and don't like about it.
5. Get a feel for the study and the job
If you aren't sure what you want to study, consider taking basic intro courses across a range of topics to test various majors—while you chip away at your core curriculum. And, if you're interested in the topic, take the next step: find out what's involved in the day-to-day work of different professions.
"Reach out to talk with people who work in fields you might like to enter, to ask them what they like and don't like about it," says Elizabeth. "This will help you get a realistic understanding of what it's like to work as a social worker or field biologist or actuary or software developer or graphic designer or anything else."
6. Remember it's part of a lifetime of learning
Regardless of whether you feel confident or concerned about your choice of major, it's crucial to remember that it's not the end of the road. Rather, it's one of the first steps in a lifetime of learning. Don't panic about the array of possibilities facing you—embrace them. "College is a time to explore and learn and grow and that is something that should be enjoyed and treasured," Anthony says.
JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. Member FDIC