Bad College Majors Magnify Student Loan Debt Problems

Have you noticed a connection between bad college majors and student loan debt troubles? Heavy student loan burdens have become a common problem. But they seem to be more concentrated among people who choose bad college majors. I’ve known a lot of young people with degrees in majors like history, psychology and sociology who have also been crushed by student loan debt. You probably do as well.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

Bad college majors lead to poor employment prospects, often relegating the graduate to low-paying, unrelated work. In such a situation, the weight of a $50,000 – $100,000 (or more) student loan debt can be downright life-wrecking.

Notice, by contrast, that people who have more technical degrees, such as accounting, engineering, information technology, teaching or nursing, don’t have equivalent problems in managing their student loan debt. That’s because they are much more likely to be employed in high paying jobs on a steady basis.

What’s truly tragic is that the whole situation can be easily avoided.

What Are the Worst College Majors?

Kiplinger’s listed the 10 Worst College Majors for Your Career in 2016. They analyzed data for 215 popular college majors, including typical starting and mid-career salaries expected from each, as well as other data.

Here’s what they came up with:

  1. Culinary arts
  2. Photography
  3. Art
  4. Paralegals (more than half report being under-employed)
  5. Anthropology
  6. Graphic design (weak prospects in the print media, but strong on the web)
  7. Radio, television and film production (certainly a “cool” major, but with poor career prospects)
  8. Religion
  9. Animal science
  10. Exercise science

Kiplinger provides significant data and analysis of each career, and it’s well worth your time to read the findings in the event that you’re considering majoring in any of these fields.

Bad College Majors Magnify Student Loan Debt Problems
Bad College Majors Magnify Student Loan Debt Problems

Conspicuous by their absence are the usual favorites of bad college majors – philosophy, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, history and the various flavors of each. But suffice it to say that there are scores of college majors that offer little to no employment potential in the real world. They are almost entirely self-contained academic disciplines, with no real world application.

The Effect of Bad Choice of Majors on Student Loan Debt

The education establishment and their advocates consider a college education to be sacrosanct, to the degree that it’s exempt from real-world constraints. But that’s a fanatical position, and one that should be fully expected from people inside the industry – yes, the college education system is every bit a self-perpetuating industry – and stand to benefit financially from that belief set.

Boiled down, that means that any college major is a good college major – as if one major isn’t any better than the others. That’s absolute nonsense!

If a student and her family incur over $100,000 in providing her undergraduate education, there unequivocally needs to be a return on investment. That return should be in the form of an in-demand career that will provide both steady employment and an above average income – otherwise, why bother to make the investment at all?

It’s tragic to see a young person from a working-class family racking up six figures in student loan debt to get a degree in a major that has slim employment potential. It’s tragic because there are ways to attend college without incurring massive debt.

I know of young people in that exact situation. Their degree in sociology or psychology leaves them unable to get a professional job. And in point of fact, they’re also overqualified to work many other jobs. That relegates them to either low-paying jobs, at perhaps $8 – $12 an hour and often part-time only, or struggling to find their way in the gig economy.

The person who has a degree in a more rewarding technical field may have a similar debt level. But the combination of stable employment, high pay, and career advancement make the debt less burdensome. The holder of such a degree will be afforded both the time and the income to pay off the debt. Alternatively, they’ll also be in a better position to refinance the debt under more favorable terms.

But the person who has a degree in one of the bad college majors has neither the employment stability nor the cash flow to service the debt after graduation. There’s also no capability to refinance the loan into better terms. A young person in this position has a completely impaired future. It does seem as if many of them have at least reluctantly come around to that realization.

And it’s not a happy place.

The People Who Should Know Better are Herding Students Right into Bad College Majors

The bad college majors/student loan debt conundrum isn’t entirely the fault of the students/graduates. People in their lives who should know better, the ones who they’re turning to for advice, are giving it either based on self-interest, lack of knowledge, dated assumptions or excessive optimism.

For example, students naturally turn to advisors within the education system for direction with their college educations. But educators are hardly unbiased advisors. If I’m a well-employed history teacher, I might have little hesitation in advising a high school senior to pursue a major in history. And in case you haven’t noticed this, the entire education system is setup to keep students moving forward within that system. Hence, any degree is a good degree.

Dated assumptions. Parents –  just because a degree in philosophy was enough to get you into a cushy corporate job 25 years ago doesn’t mean that will work the same way today. We’re in a very different economy, and one that we should not expect at this point will return to “normal”. Quite the opposite, it’s readily apparent that a constrained job market IS the new normal.

Taking cues and advice from peers. Students often seek the opinions and approval of friends and peers in regard to college selection, including their majors. This is the worst source of information possible. To a young person, the world and life are a blank canvas waiting to be painted any way that you want.

I don’t want to discourage that kind of thinking, because it has real relevance in life. But you don’t reach that point of being able to create a lifestyle of your choice until you acquire the skill sets that will enable you to provide financially for those lifestyle choices. That is, whatever else you want to do in life, your first requirement is to develop the ability to earn a living. Without that crucial first step, nothing else in your life is likely to work out happily.

In that regard, many bad college majors are more like hobbies than career paths. As a young person, particularly one coming out of a middle class or working class family, where there are financial limits, it’s important to develop skills that can be used to generate income. Those bad college majors can then be pursued as hobbies – and maybe eventually, under the right circumstances, those hobbies themselves can turn into income-generating careers.

Doing anything that encourages a student to take on massive levels of student loan debt to obtain a major in a field that’s unlikely to lead to career success, or at least some measure of financial stability, is an indirect attempt to sabotage that young person’s life. That’s unconscionable.

That may sound harsh, but it needs to be said.

Managing Your College Education Intelligently

If you’re a wealthy parent, or if you’re a student who comes from a wealthy family, none of this will apply to you. But if you’re like the vast majority of people, you have definite financial limits. Those limits are clearly breached when large student loans become “necessary”.

Every effort should be made to either:

  • Incur debt only in the pursuit of a degree in a well-paying field, or
  • Pursue a degree in a bad college major using little or no student loan debt – you may still be unable to make a decent living, but at least you won’t have the debt albatross.

Taking on some debt to earn a technical degree is usually worth the cost. But doing the same with bad college majors is crippling.

If you insist on pursuing one of the bad college majors, attend a community college for the first two years, and then perhaps a public in-state four-year college for the balance. Work part-time and during the summers as you do. Alternatively, work full time and pursue your education on a part-time basis. Either way, the connection between your major and the amount of student loan debt you take on can never be ignored.

What can you do if you already have a bad college major, a lot of student debt, and a low-paying job situation?

It might be worth the investment to return to school – again, either at a community college or in-state four-year public school – to obtain a more financially rewarding career. Since you already have a basic college education, the conversion should be a good bit easier.

The other alternative is to work your way into some form of self-employment. Simply put, if no one will hire you into a stable, well-paying job, then you will have to create your own employment niche.

You can do this either by starting a side business or by working your way into the gig economy, but to pursue it as a serious career path rather than a temporary experience. Either offer the opportunity to start slowly at your own pace. Once you get started, you can work into it at your own pace. From there, you can take it wherever you want it to go. It’s called creating your own future – and that’s exactly what you’ll need to do.

I’m sure no one told you about any of this when you chose your college major. But as the saying goes, when times get tough, the tough get going. Remember that blank canvas thing I wrote about earlier? It’s real enough, but filling it with pleasant experiences and trappings usually requires a lot more effort than you ever imagined.

What would you advise a young person who has a bad college major, too much student loan debt, and is only minimally employed?

( Photo by DonkeyHotey )

4 Responses to Bad College Majors Magnify Student Loan Debt Problems

  1. Your article is correct on so many levels I’m not sure which one to focus on. I have too many stories to back up your points. I guess I would add that in addition to intelligently choosing a major, a student and his/her family should also intelligently choose a college to attend. There is no need to go to an expensive private college if a public university will give you just as good an education. You don’t need to go to Harvard to be an elementary education teacher. And they should look up the licensing or certification requirements of their desired job. For example, you can’t do much with a psychology degree without a minimum of a master’s degree and most likely will need a PhD which adds 2-4 years in school and in tern ups the expense of the degree. Too many high school counselors fail the students seeking help in making these decisions so it is up to the student and the parents to do their due diligence.

  2. I completely agree on all fronts Kathy. Most kids seem to be entering college with no more than a little bit of knowledge, and as the saying goes, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. The college choice is SO important, since all the expenses will follow that decision. My personal feeling is that kids today are being filled with ideas of unlimited options, which is a massive delusion that helps to leave them poorly prepared for adult life, even apart from the debt that comes with it.

    The other issue that I didn’t cover in the article that’s also a major factor is the students themselves. The selection of colleges is often driven by a desire to follow friends, or even to live in a certain geographic location. For example, a lot of kids want to go to college in Florida, even if the schools they choose aren’t well regarded. I also believe the decision to live far away from home is also driven by a desire for an extended vacation. I think that also explains why so many students choose soft majors. They really aren’t interested in learning anything useful, or a course of study that might disrupt their lifestyles. For a student who fits that profile, and I know of a lot who do, a degree in sociology is greatly preferred over a degree in nursing.

    (Just a guess, but I’m sure the self-styled education purists hate people like me…)

  3. I once read somewhere about a wealthy parent who made his teenage children work as much as possible while still in high-school. He said “awful jobs…ditch digging, washing dishes, etc.” jobs without futures so to speak, but still work is work, and it’s all meaningful in some respect. But, his point was that he wanted his children to see what kind of work and lifestyle would be available to them if they chose not to get an education. Now, this is different from the point of your post, I know. But if students can get a grasp of how much things cost and how much work has to be done just to afford the basics in life, perhaps they can get a better understanding of how important it is to see what their degree can be expected to pay IF they get a job, and that’s a big if in this economy. Student loan debt follows you to your grave. To my knowledge, it can’t even be discharged in bankruptcy. Far more important than that famed four-year degree is the ROI. There is nothing wrong with technical programs that give you marketable, in-demand skills.

  4. We think a lot alike Bev. I think your comments take this discussion to a higher level because you’re addressing the mindset of today’s young people. My sense going back at least to the 90s is that our society has been making everything too easy for young people (anti-bullying, political correctness, everybody makes the team/gets a trophy, your education is all that matters, grade inflation, overly restrictive child labor laws, child protection laws that have effectively dis-empowered parents, sky’s the limit student loans, etc). In fact, I’ve referred to it as the Age of the Imperial Child. It may be well-intended, but it’s also the road to destruction.

    None of it prepares young people for life in the real world, a life that’s gotten a lot less comfortable than what it used to be. Fundamentally young people should be taught the value of work-save-invest, which has historically been the most successful way to prosperity. But we’ve made everything so easy that they’re naturally conditioned to follow the herd into the path of least resistance. The basic problem is that this development has moved in so gradually, and cloaked in soft, sensitive language that most people are blind to what’s happened. In trying to be Mike and Carol Brady to our kids we’ve set them up to fail.

    Probably my biggest revelation in life has been that nothing happens in my life until I make it happen. If you’re defeated because something’s hard then you’ll never accomplish anything. That’s the exact opposite of what kids are being raised into, and now we’re reaping what we’ve sown. It’s tragic and no one even knows it happening, or how it happened. I have no answer for this on a society-wide basis, but I do know that nature eventually over-rides all of our well-intentioned mistakes, and I think we’re close to seeing that play out. Which is basically to say that while we’ve created the problem, we’ll have no control over the outcome.

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