Money Does not Buy Happiness, but it May Affect Your Major

A student ponders over choosing a major in STEM, or the arts. Illustration by Maya Winshell.

You are conflicted. You are passionate about art and would love to spend your college days painting and drawing instead of incessantly reading dry textbooks. At the same time, you hear people constantly talking about how useless an art major is and how you will never get a job with it. So you consider pursuing a more profitable degree, like economics. That is a smart choice with a lot of career options. But then you take Professor Bekar’s ECON 100 class and realize that, for most people, economics is pretty difficult, incredibly dry and tedious.

Many students find themselves in a similar dilemma: choosing between a degree they have genuine interest in and one that provides job security. Of course, you could always double major, but you will probably still be spending the majority of your time on the more difficult major, potentially forcing you to shift your attention away from your more passionate choice. What should you do?

An important factor when considering a profitable major, such as one in some STEM fields or economics, is that if you do not enjoy studying it, you will probably not enjoy whatever job you get from it. These kinds of majors often lead to high salaries but, to use the cliché, money does not buy happiness. At the same time however, debt and unemployment certainly contribute to unhappiness.

One of the great parts of a degree from a liberal arts school is the broad skillset it delivers. At most larger state universities and private colleges, the vast majority of classes you will take will be ones directly related to your chosen major. Similarly, community and vocational colleges offer courses with specific associate degrees and career paths in mind. At a school like Lewis & Clark, you may get an art degree, but you have also had to take classes involving science, math, reading, writing, discussion and many other areas while acquiring a variety of abilities that are applicable to many lines of work.

However, some of the most popular degrees considered enjoyable from Lewis & Clark still result in some of the lowest average and median salaries. Majors in psychology, fine arts, performing arts, sociology/anthropology and general interdisciplinary studies usually result in salaries in the $40,000 to $50,000 per year range. If you accumulate tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from loans in getting one of these degrees, you might be paying it off for a very long time.

While you can likely get a job with most degrees from a liberal arts school, such an investment may not be the the best course if your goal is just to land any random job. You can get a job making this much with a far cheaper degree, like from a community college or potentially with no degree at all. But if you are trying to enter a specific field that you are confident you will be happy and fulfilled in, then the struggle might just be worthwhile.

We should remember, though, that our greatest passion does not have to be our career. Our hobbies can just be hobbies and that is fine. We can still maintain these interests while eventually holding a job in an entirely different field. But if you decide that you want to pursue a major that leads to your dream career, even if it means lower pay and reduced job prospects, the payoff will be the acquisition of skills that will serve you in that chosen field.

Each of us has to make a personal choice about whether our liberal arts degree is worth it. If you are pursuing a specific degree to land a job that you are passionate about, then maybe it is, even if hefty loans are acquired in the process. But if you are racking up immense debt to get a “fun” degree, with no ideas of how to apply it, then that is perhaps a short-sighted decision. College is an important and enjoyable life experience, but it is also a tool and an investment for our future pursuits. When choosing a major, we need to remember that.

Written by Austin Schmidberger.

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