Verbum Ultimum: The Cost of One's Major


The Atlantic recently published an article with the sensational title, “Rich Kids Study English,” which explores the results of a study that show a correlation between parental wealth and student major. It appears that nationally, college students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds choose majors in “hireable” fields more often than their wealthier peers. Because wealthy students do not have to worry as much about landing a job solely based on their major, the study suggests, they pursue less practical fields of study. At Dartmouth, we are often sold the idea of the holistic, liberal arts education. The admissions office advertises this ideal, and our professors and deans, among others, tell us from day one of orientation that we should major in something we love. But that is often easier said than done.

The practical reality for many students is that a Dartmouth diploma is not enough — the major printed on this diploma still matters. As The Atlantic study suggests, the pressure to follow career-oriented paths and eschew the liberal arts is often higher for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. While French or art history can lead to some career options, other majors promise directly applicable skills in more lucrative fields. For those who may be burdened by student loans, a less hireable major may not be worth the risk of unemployment after graduation. A degree in a STEM field often opens up higher-paying opportunities with better benefits to those who need them most. STEM majors frequently rank among the highest-paid upon graduation, while many humanities fields consistently dwell somewhere near the bottom in most major rankings. Further, the option to expand upon one’s undergraduate degree through graduate programs is not always viable, particularly for those facing student debt.

Thinking of the financial outcomes of one’s college education is reasonable. While we should celebrate the ideals of a liberal arts education, we must acknowledge these concerns and the sociopolitical nuances of selecting a major.

In many ways, liberal arts institutions are facing a crisis of confidence. William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League” is one of the latest high-profile attacks on the Ivy League and the liberal arts institution more broadly. A liberal arts education stimulates the mind, makes room for intellectual debate and allows students to enjoy learning for its own sake. It also forces students to learn to think in an abstract way and exposure to new and complex ideas. An often-overlooked yet vital component to rethinking the liberal arts, however, is the extent to which students have equal access to this experience. People often debate the objective merits of humanities studies — broad thinking, moral and intellectual development, exposure to great cultural works — against those of STEM fields, which include knowing technical skills, competing on a world stage, and so on. They do not consider, however, that many students do not have the opportunity to make this choice, even if they value the skills and experiences that a humanities education might offer them.

So, if you have the means, choose the major that you feel passionate about, but recognize the privilege embedded in that choice. That being said, the beauty of a liberal arts education is that the major you choose does not define your experience at the College. Even if you pursue a more practical major, the liberal arts can be explored through distributive requirements and though course exploration outside one’s major. Experiences outside the classroom, from casual, spontaneous conversations with a professor to lecture series or programs, can foster that sort of learning as well. College aims to prepare us for our adult lives, and sometimes adulthood requires compromise and practicality.