Education for Life

Don’t choose a major based on what pays well this week

I’ve taught college for almost 30 years. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve averaged a teaching award every three years. Next year I’m teaching in Japan on a Fulbright. I’ve embraced higher education up close, and I wish more people didn’t struggle under a gross misunderstanding about it. Given how essential higher education is to the culture and economy of Eugene, I want to confront that misunderstanding.

There’s no such thing as a superfood. Spinach won’t turn you into Popeye. Multivitamins give gullible Americans the world’s most expensive urine. A name brand college doesn’t guarantee career success, and neither does a highly touted major. The misunderstanding is a polarized pair of wrong views of college.

The first is that college is all about the job search Monday after graduation. A lot of worried parents arm-twist daughters and sons to pick a major they expect to turn into a lucrative job. They imagine graduates with those degrees find high paying work while everyone else bounces between unemployment and barista jobs. 

But that’s dead wrong. Traditional undergraduates enter a working life that can span five decades. Hot majors cool off. Industries are scrambled by technological breakthroughs. Even graduates with one of the supposed golden tickets have to brace for the arrival of the following years’ graduates who have the latest advances baked into their degrees. 

There’s a reason many such workers transition, between ages 25 and 40, into jobs that no longer use their degree. Graduates whose majors weren’t built around newly invented skills are more likely to grow and mature in their work, instead of frantically trying to outrun the cutting edge of innovation. Google David Deming’s work on the subject if you want a closer look at data backing up what I say.

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes an in-demand major fits your interests or your life’s plans. If so, it’s the right choice. The blunder is choosing it as a sedative for your phobia of poverty.

If someone you knew decided to get married just for a swinging party with flattering photos and a wild wedding night, you’d expect to see them in a divorce lawyer’s office right away. If they don’t approach marriage with the long term in mind, they predictably land in what the Holmes-Rahe stress inventory scores as the second most painful experience of all. Aiming college at landing a first job, instead of a career, is the same mistake, equally reckless and destructive. It’s long past time we collectively dump it on the trash heap of abandoned dumb ideas.

The mirror image of misunderstanding higher education is writing off college altogether. If it doesn’t guarantee you a high paying job, what’s the point? When you get hungry, if you can’t have açaí berries or spirulina, then you may as well grab Cheetos or a Big Mac, right? A healthy diet is not a black-and-white choice between junk science and junk food; there are plenty of good options that contribute part of a broad, diverse foundation for health. Similarly, there are a lot of good opportunities in college that contribute part of a broad, diverse set of growth experiences that strengthen the foundation for adult life. 

One population of students, I think, gets this: older students returning to school. The ones I’ve seen pick a major, sometimes self-designed, that builds tools that apply to a lot of problems, not a dress rehearsal for one job that might or might not be the right fit, might or might not stay in demand, or even in existence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re also at the age where they clean up old eating habits and think about having a healthy diet, not just a healthy ingredient. 

Just this week, my old boss retired, and my new boss asked a powerful question in his first meeting with all of us: “It’s not primarily what are you going to do with your degree, but what is your degree going to do to you?”

I know the cost of college is out of control. Believe me when I say the obscene tuition is not lining my pockets. But the cost of healthcare is also out of control, and that doesn’t change the fact that superfood claims are junk science. Misguided is misguided, dumb is dumb, and colleges are not vending machines for dream jobs. They’re gymnasiums for thinking and decision skills. Stop brutally simplifying what we do and we can offer you something that can help in every area of your life.

Doyle Srader lives in Eugene. He is not related to recent Democratic primary candidate for Congress Doyle Canning. That is not how first names work.