April 23, 2019 | 71° F

Research finds correlation between college major and family income


At a school with more than a hundred majors, deciding what to study seems like the ultimate form of self-expression. But a new study suggests that students’ choices are affected by how much money their parents make.

Cornell sociologist Kim Weeden analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics and found that the average parental income of students studying humanities and art was higher than the average parental income of students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), as well as applied fields like nursing and law enforcement.

According to Weeden’s research, English, history and visual and performing arts were the three majors with the highest averages for household income. Associate degree programs, such as law enforcement and education, had the lowest averages. Other majors that attracted a higher proportion of students from lower income families were psychology, computer science, medicine, nursing and agriculture.

The data used in the study was collected from roughly 12,000 students between 2002 and 2012. Researchers tracked students from their sophomore year in high school to after they graduated college.

Abhishek Choudhury, a School of Arts of Sciences junior who is considering a double major in history and statistics, said he has noticed that the students in his history classes seem to come from wealthier backgrounds. His parents wanted him to be a cellular biology and neuroscience major, but he wanted the freedom to take courses from many different subject areas.

Choudhury does not think any major he chooses will directly relate to his future career, but he sees college as an opportunity to explore subjects that he is interested in.

Paul McLean, the chair of Rutgers’ Department of Sociology, said wealthier students are more likely to embrace the idea that the goal of a college education is to prepare students for life, rather than a job. He said language barriers for international students may play a small role in steering low income students away from subjects that are reading and writing intensive, and thus require a firm grasp of the English language.

But McLean said language barriers are only a minor factor and students are primarily motivated by their economic interests. Some majors provide very few job opportunities to students. As a result, low income students avoid pursuing these subjects. Art history is an example of a discipline that is perceived as being for people who are already wealthy, he said.

Out of the 22 majors Weeden ranked, McLean’s own discipline of political science and anthropology has the fifth highest average level of household income. Sociology attracts lower income students through fields like criminal justice and social work, which do lead to direct employment, McLean said.

McLean said first generation college students often feel compelled to treat higher education as vocational training programs. These students expect that their studies will result in them finding jobs, and they are moving away from the humanities in favor of STEM fields because they think that if they major in STEM, they will have jobs waiting for them once they graduate.

Research indicates that students are accurate in thinking that majoring in STEM can lead to a more lucrative job. A study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducted in 2013 ranked engineering and computer science as the two disciplines with the highest starting salaries. For this study, humanities and social sciences were combined into one category, and they were the field with the lowest starting salary.

In addition, researchers from Georgetown University looked at the average incomes of college graduates for 137 different majors and found that STEM and business majors had the highest level of income.

Wanning Tan, a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in mathematics, said one reason math appeals to her is that she thinks it is a field where it is easy to find a job. But Tan said the promise of a job after college was not a deciding factor.

Tan enjoys math because it is universal.

“... In my home college, which was not in America, my major was philosophy, and then I changed it to math," she said. "I still had an interest in math. I think it was easier for me to get it, and it (math) was like a bridge between different cultures."

Tan said her parents had no impact on her choice of major.

“They respected my choice," she said. "When I asked for their advice (about a major), they said it was my choice.”

Katia Oltmann

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