2 out of 5 U.S. college graduates regret their college major.
In 2011, under the shadow of the 2008 global financial crisis and the economic depression, Barack Obama, US President of the time, called for and implemented various policies encouraging Americans to "go beyond the rest of the world in innovation, education and development."
It was around the same time, in 2011, when more and more arts and humanities graduates have switched over to pursue STEM majors.
Now, as of 2021, nearly half of humanities and arts major graduates regret their major choice. According to a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve, engineering students have the least regrets: Only 24% wish they had chosen another major.
Meanwhile, a data analysis by Federal Reserve shows that the more people make today, the less likely they are to regret their college major choice.
Percentage of Graduates Who Regretted Their Major, Source: Washington Post
The figures have remained relatively stable since this survey began in 2016. The most notable change is in education majors which was below average before the epidemic, but above average after the epidemic. More people regret choosing education as their major. On the other hand, regret rates in the life sciences have fallen steadily and substantially.
Regrets in studying Humanities and Arts majors have been growing. According to historian and digital humanist Ben Schmidt's analysis of data from the National Center for Education, by 2021, compared to the total number of graduates, the number of graduates in subjects such as history, English and religion, will be less than half of that in the early 2000's, a period when the number of Humanities and Arts graduates peaked.
Share of Humanities and CS Majors, 1985- 2020, Source: Washington Post
According to Schmidt, the Great Depression triggered the start of a downward spiral in the humanities, including history, art, philosophy, English, and foreign languages. The red line in the figure represents the share of humanities major graduates, and the percentage is declining. The blue line is showing fluctuating increase in the proportion of computer science major graduates. The two almost came to an intersection in 2021.
In the recent decade when the US turned to STEM subjects, the number of people earning a computer science degree has doubled. Every subject in the STEM field saw significant growth, including majors like Nursing, Sports Science , Medicine, Environmental Science, Engineering, Math, and Statistics, all of which has grown by at least 50%.
Meanwhile, in the humanities, only two subjects have shown increase: Cultural, Ethnic and Gender Studies, and Linguistics. (As shown below)
Change in the Number of Graduates by Major, 2011 - 2021, Source: Washington Post
According to an analysis of Census Bureau data from 2014 to 2018 by Douglas Webber, now an economist at the Federal Reserve, a student majoring in history or journalism can expect to earn about a total of $3.4 million lifetime earnings, while a student in economics, biological sciences or chemistry can expect to earn about $4.6 million in lifetime earnings.
But at the same time, Webber's research shows that many of the highest-paid humanities majors earn more than the lowest-paid STEM majors. For example, the top quartile of history majors earned $4.2 million over their careers, much more than the bottom quartile of chemistry and aerospace engineering students.
Some humanities scholars argue that these humanities majors may prepare for higher-income opportunities later in life, because they don't niche students into learning narrow programming languages, certifications or limit their career paths. The critical thinking skills taught in humanities courses prepares students to quickly adapt to future demands and jobs that do not yet exist.
Quinn Dombrowski of Stanford University said: "The ability to raise difficult questions is very important, and this ability applies to a variety of different occupations."
Dombrowski's degree in Slavic linguistics has led her to careers in academic information technology, high-performance computing, and helping researchers analyze language using computers. In her spare time, she founded the Data-Sitters club and co-founded an effort to archive Ukrainian websites before they were taken down by Russian hackers.
"When we work on digital humanities projects with undergraduates," Dombrowski said, "it's often easier to enroll humanities undergraduates and teach them enough programming to do what they need to do, rather than enrolling someone who doesn't even sleep. CS students who can code because they don’t think in the nuanced way we want.”
While he now spends most of his time coding and analyzing data, Schmidt says he is still glad he studied the humanities as an undergraduate. "I don't regret my undergraduate major, in part because I was able to learn all the programming languages I needed on my own," Schmidt said. "I didn't need a computer science class to do this," he added.
But Dombrowski said she understands undergraduates’ desire to enter high-paying technical careers right after college, rather than rolling the dice on a humanities degree, and believes opportunities will arise. "You can tell people that it gives them a brighter future in the long-term of their careers."
Major Choices play a huge role for students, both in the application process and in their long-term career planning. The most popular and rewarding majors may not be for everyone, but at the same time students need to make practical considerations before devoting their time and money into pursuing their passions.
At Enlighteens, we believe that there is an overlap between practical choices and personal interests for every student. Working with students with all kinds of backgrounds and needs, we are here to help them become the best version of themselves, with the bigger picture in mind.