Post from 1028, October 2021

College Majors—about More than Money

Sunday, 10. October 2021 23:26

Recently there has been a spate of articles about the best and worst college majors, along with rankings. The primary metrics used to make these determinations are median income level and unemployment rates. Also factored in in some reports were the number of people who went on to get advanced degrees.  Some articles considered return on investment as a criterion—which, of course varies by the school attended.

It probably comes as no surprise that regardless of the methodology, visual and performing arts were at or near the bottom of almost every listing. As someone who has made a respectable living from performing arts for a while now, I immediately took offense. But then I thought about it, and realized that these listings were probably accurate—given the measures used. What I found to be troubling were the measures that were not used, or, in some cases, not even considered. In all fairness, the most recent of these articles, “The most valuable college majors in 2021, ranked,” does say, “Of course, students shouldn’t pick a college major solely based on future income, unemployment rate and the amount of schooling required. STEM degrees aren’t for everyone; students will be at their most successful when pursuing a field that’s interesting to them. There’s a psychic paycheck for going into a low-paying field such as social work.” [emphasis mine]

As a performing arts educator, I know from experience that if it were not for special-interest programs, visual and performing arts among them, some students would not attend college at all. The special-interest program provides a “home” for those students who have little interest in the more traditional majors. Sir Ken Robinson provides an excellent example of the special-interest student in a YouTube video.

Additionally, there is the factor of job satisfaction. A number of individuals are happy to be working in fields that let them express their creativity, or allow them to avoid the nine-to-five existence of the office. In fact, one international study found “a significantly higher job satisfaction of artists than other occupations.”

Along with job satisfaction, comes the ability to make a contribution to society. It sounds lofty and idealistic, but some are driven by those goals and feel that visual and performing arts provide them with an avenue toward that objective.

Additionally, a foundation in the performing arts prepares majors with skills that are useful for any occupation, should the student decide, for whatever reason, to move out of the arts and into some other business as a life’s work. These skills include communication, teamwork, adaptability, self-discipline, responsibility, resilience, and self-advocacy—all basic skills for virtually any occupation.

For example, I recently had lunch with a couple whose two daughters both took undergraduate degrees in performing arts. One used the degree and skills to work for a production company and to secure roles in commercial productions—until the pandemic came, and essentially closed down all live production. She pivoted, and shifted to work as a tutor and socialization coach, and is now looking forward to future possibilities. Her sister has been undertaking an advanced degree and is working as a youth minister. Both sisters are aware that they are not in what would be considered lucrative fields, but both know how to handle what money they have. Moreover, they feel rewarded in their work and have put their performing arts skills to work in worlds that not “technically” performing, but require many of the same skills, talents, and passions.

The point of all this is, that if you are in the position of choosing a college major or advising someone who is trying to make that decision, remember that while money is certainly important, there are considerations beyond the financial. The short list includes not only basic income, but job satisfaction, working conditions, lifestyle, and creative opportunity. Success and fulfilment are about more than money.

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