On a bright Saturday afternoon in April, approximately 70 students, professors and administrators gathered in the sunlit Levinson Auditorium of the Yale Law School for a panel featuring Jeff Hobbs ’02, author of the best-selling “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” and his former suitemate Thomas Hocker ’02. Chatter and laughter filled the room as people waited for the panel to begin, but the light atmosphere belied a more serious purpose. Hobbs and Hocker, both Yale grads, had returned to campus as part of the DiversiTea speaker series, a collection of talks from experts in various fields aimed at addressing issues of diversity in science, technology, engineering and math.
The discussion was an emotional one. His voice subdued, Hobbs told the story of his friend and roommate, Robert Peace, who was the subject of his book. Peace was a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major at Yale from an economically disadvantaged Black family from Newark, New Jersey. Although his father was convicted of and imprisoned for murder and his mother worked long hours to make ends meet, Peace transcended these difficulties and was accepted to Yale, where his academic and social success primed professors and peers alike to believe that he would eventually be able to break from his family’s situation. But Peace, after returning home, was ultimately killed dealing drugs.
During the reception following the discussion, I approached Hobbs to ask him about his decision to study English. The panel had rekindled my struggle over deciding what to major in: whether I should honor stability or passion, STEM or the arts.
“I didn’t say this during the panel, but people’s comments did make me wonder whether studying English was a product of my family’s financial situation,” Hobbs told me. “I knew they would support me even if I wanted to go into nonprofit work, so I just did what I liked and was good at. I didn’t feel the same pressure as Rob maybe did to do something useful with a laid-out career path.”
It’s been more than a decade since Hobbs, Peace and Hocker graduated from Yale, but designations of “useful” and “useless” still feature prominently in public perceptions of various majors. STEM majors, most seem to believe, set out on a linear path to success (e.g., medical or graduate school or high-paying corporate jobs) and economics classes churn out majors who go on to make millions from Wall Street. On the other hand, humanities majors meander, their heads in the clouds. From Forbes to The Daily Beast, lists of “Most Valuable College Majors” and “Worst College Majors” proliferate on the Internet.
But how much truth actually lies in the correlation of major and career? And what kind of a role does socioeconomic class play in students’ choice of major?
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A 2015 study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that the difference in lifetime earnings between the highest-paying major (petroleum engineering) and the lowest-paying major (early childhood education) is over $3 million. Splitting majors into seven “supergroups,” the study notes that STEM majors have the highest entry-level median wages — $43,000 a year — after graduation, while arts, liberal arts and humanities majors have the lowest at $29,000. These differences are compounded over time with minimal shifts in relative ranking: by midcareer, STEM majors see growth to $76,000 a year, retaining the top spot in terms of median earnings. Arts, liberal arts and humanities majors make $51,000 a year and have moved up to second-to-last place, replaced on the bottom rung by teaching and serving majors ($46,000 a year).
The study’s results are fairly consistent with popular thought: learning STEM in a technologically blooming society would reasonably lead to lucrative careers, while arts and humanities are considered by most people to be an indulgence. This logic is reflected to an extent among the Yale population. A survey of 995 members of the class of 2016, conducted for the “Econometrics and Data Analysis I” course (ECON 131) and led by student Sara* ’18, used home value as an indicator of class. Dividing majors into five categories (humanities; social sciences; language; selective majors such as global affairs or ethics, politics and economics; and science and quantitative reasoning), the researchers found the most significant correlation with home value among science and humanities majors. Students with low home values, the study found, gravitate toward the sciences. Humanities majors, on the other hand, tend to come from higher-valued homes. For the rest of the majors, there was no significant correlation between home value and field of study.
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But the path to achieving financial stability through any major is especially difficult for low-income students, who come into Yale saddled with disadvantages resulting from the quality of their secondary schooling or work-study commitments. Matthew Massie ’17, a history major, notes that the consequences can extend into the classroom.
“Lower-class students who earned diplomas from public schools can feel less confidence participating in class discussions or approaching professors for meetings,” he said. Indeed, Yale’s student population features an unusually high proportion of students — 44 percent, a number that has stayed relatively consistent over the years — who received their secondary education in private schools compared with the national 11.3 percent. The need to take on student jobs to make up the student income contribution also plays a role in producing feelings of discomfort among low-income students.
“Students who don’t have to sacrifice sleep in order to earn money are able to pay more attention in class,” Massie explained. “I’ve had to come to section having finished none of the reading as a consequence of working so much.”
In STEM, these struggles can be even further compounded. Majoring in science or engineering is “understood to be a good economic investment,” says Tony Scott ’17, a chemistry major. But such students may lack skills and knowledge that were conferred to those who attended top prep schools. Students from such backgrounds sometimes struggle to keep up in introductory “weed-out” lectures graded on curves that force students to compete with each other for good scores. And Scott, like Massie, cites commitments to fulfill the SIC as a demand on time that could be better spent on other activities. For those in STEM, these may include opportunities to attend optional review sessions and to work 10 to 20 hours a week in a research lab, a graduation requirement for most science majors. “Though many students do it, I know several who have dropped their dreams of becoming a doctor simply because working 20 hours a week left them unable to complete coursework,” said Scott, who is involved with the Students Unite Now in their effort to end the SIC.
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Beyond financial stability, practical considerations like the pressure of potential employers’ perceptions can factor into students’ decisions to take on a STEM major. Cameron Yick ’17 is a computer science and electrical engineering major who helped found YaleMakes, a club that hosts workshops on intersection points between STEM and design arts. Yick never considered majoring in the arts or humanities despite enjoying non-STEM seminars.
“I’ve assumed that the types of companies and problems that I’ve wanted to work on would require a science degree,” he said. “Additionally, I felt that if I wanted to work on a startup before having industry experience, having a technical major might help with attracting co-founders.”
Indeed, the pressure of such practical considerations was part of Sarah’s motivation in studying the correlation between class and major for ECON 131. “[As a first-generation American,] it was always understood that your parents made some sacrifices in coming to America,” she said. “Having the opportunity to see whether or not there was any truth to that notion was pretty exciting.”
This was a sentiment that resonated with me. While I do not come from a low-income household, I have always felt an obligation to honor my parents for all they have given up so that I may have the life I have by taking on a major that could lessen their financial burden.
But majors aren’t perfect predictors of future financial success, or even of career. According to the Final Destination Survey on the class of 2015 compiled by the Yale Office of Career Strategy, only 39 percent of students said their area of employment was “highly related to their field(s) of study,” while 12.8 percent said it was “not related.”
Julie Schwarz ’16, for instance, is an English major who will be going into medicine after graduation. “I chose English because I loved the small courses, had great professors early on and really loved the content and the analytical skills I developed,” she said. She doesn’t see a conflict between the two fields of study. “Mostly [English] has improved my critical thinking and analysis skills and exposed me to key works of literature that our culture developed around,” she said. “[Majoring] in the humanities and being premed … requires you to do more different types of work and think in different ways. This is something most of us are or should be doing as students at a liberal arts college.”
Others might disagree. Sarah described a discussion among lower-income students in which one such student expressed frustration that Yale perpetuates the idea that everyone here has “equal access to a liberal arts education.” In truth, he felt that he didn’t have the choice to study whatever he wanted — rather, he was obligated to “[study] engineering so that one day his child can study art.”
Hobbs lit upon a similar idea when speaking of his roommate. “Rob was really creative and, like most Yale students, liked expanding his mind by taking classes in fields of study outside of MCDB,” he said in a phone interview, “but he probably didn’t have much room to do that because of his financial burdens.” As much as Yale encourages students to explore areas they might otherwise shy away from through distributional requirements, many disadvantaged students still feel like they are forced to keep their forays into new and less “practical” fields of study small.
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The correlations the ECON 131 survey found can perhaps be blamed in part on general notions of a major’s practical application in the workforce. Stefanie Markovits, director of undergraduate studies in English, said many parents ask their children to justify their choice to study English.
“We have to work against the stereotype that English majors can’t find jobs afterwards,” she said. She pointed out that while some majors have followed the expected path into academia or journalism, others have gone into finance, law or medicine. “The ability to think clearly and to articulate ideas with precision and elegance comes in use almost everywhere,” she said.
Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor Maria Trumpler GRD ’92 identified a similar phenomenon among children of “immigrants who may be unfamiliar with WGSS and would like their offspring to pursue law or medicine.” Such parents tend to believe that studying WGSS will not lead to conventionally stable careers, instead pigeonholing their children into obscure stratifications of academia. Perhaps contrary to those beliefs, however, some WGSS majors do go on to work in law and public health, as well as journalism, social advocacy and other areas that “[try] to ‘change the system’ both in the U.S. and abroad.” “Often those majors go on to do amazing advocacy work for the communities that they came from,” Trumpler said.
Likewise, majors associated with high post-graduation earnings still yield students who go into less lucrative careers, like nonprofit work. The perception that the major in economics is aimed at making money is not entirely false, according to economics professor Christopher Udry. But, he added, “[It is] profoundly misleading in that it misses essentially everything that I find interesting about the subject.” Of the students who wrote senior essays with him and with whom he has stayed in touch, many have ended up in Ph.D. programs, consulting, law school and “sometimes the financial sector.” But others have gone on to volunteer with the Peace Corps and Teach for America.
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Across the board, it seems reductive to point at financial reasons as the only motivations for students to take on certain majors. Almost all interviewed students said that even given the means to major in a different area, they would stick with what they have.
“I chose MCDB because in high school I always loved biology,” said Jake Roy ’19. “I probably wouldn’t change my major even if I didn’t have my parents’ support because I think MCDB is the best way for me to achieve my goals.”
Hobbs agreed. “I don’t want to take away from the idea that Rob was really passionate about science,” he said in a phone interview. “He loved it.” While Peace may not have had as much room as wealthier students to expand his mind by exploring outside of STEM, he still cared about what he was studying, Hobbs explained.
Ultimately, the correlation between socioeconomic situation and major is undeniable. The weight of responsibility to fulfill financial obligations is a difficult one to escape for most low-income and first-generation students, an unfortunate reality that lies counter to the romantic ideal of the liberal arts education. But the reality may not be as dire as the numbers make it appear, and the choice, in the end, does not matter as much as it may seem. While I haven’t come to any conclusions regarding what direction I want to take, there is solace in knowing that the path I end up on is not the be-all and end-all of the rest of my life.
Reflecting on where his friends from college have ended up, Hobbs noted that majors of all variety went on to find success. “They’re all living good lives now,” he said.