Counselors Network

SPOTLIGHT

Tips to guide students on their college and career path


One million dollars is the oft-cited figure representing the difference in lifetime earnings between a person with a bachelor’s degree and one with a high school diploma. While it’s generally true that lifetime earnings and rates of employment increase with higher levels of educational attainment, students need to know how their choice of major and occupation may affect their ability to repay any debt incurred to achieve a college degree.

Each major has different job potential and, therefore, different potential for income and debt repayment. Students pursuing a degree in engineering or natural science can usually find a job more easily and earn more than other majors. By contrast, humanities majors have higher unemployment rates and typically earn less.

If a student has his or her heart set on earning a degree in the humanities, they shouldn’t switch disciplines just yet. Science majors aren’t resistant to debt; and it isn’t impossible for an English Lit major to get a job—it just won’t be as easy. There are three specific on-campus resources that students and parents can turn to for a comprehensive understanding of the interplay between choosing a major and student loans: financial aid counselors, academic advisors, and career services. In addition, here are some key guidelines you may decide to pass on to your students about choosing and major and taking on debt.

Be realistic about a career path. Pursue those dreams with eyes open. If a major usually leads to a lower-paying job, a student should take that into consideration when borrowing student loans. The average social sciences major earns $1,625 (after taxes) each month, with monthly loan payments of $229. In comparison, the average computer science major earns $2,969 per month, with monthly loan payments of $265. Though the computer science major pays slightly more in loans, he or she earns nearly $1,000 more each month. That isn’t to say a student shouldn’t pursue his or her passion; the student should simply be realistic about how much a specific degree will earn.

Be your own advocate. Get a well-rounded understanding of all options through on-campus resources like the financial aid office, the career planning office, and an academic advisor. In the financial aid office, students can learn about aid options, including loans, and strategies for financing an education. Students can find information about job opportunities and income potential in the career planning office. Similarly, the academic advisor can give students a perspective on what career options might correspond with a particular major. By having a comprehensive understanding of financial aid and the realities of a degree plan, students will be able to make smart choices about majors and how to finance their education.

Be on time. On-time graduation can help lower costs and make it easier to deal with student debt. The longer it takes to graduate, the more costs a student incurs, and the longer it takes to reach any earning potential and start paying back loans. If a student drops to part-time enrollment or is not on track with a degree plan, the financial aid package could be affected. If a student has dual or Advanced Placement (AP) credit, he or she could save tuition money and complete college sooner; the student should coordinate with an academic advisor to find out how those credits will affect the graduation date. Also, suggest that students consult degree requirements and draw up a plan. How many hours per semester will they need to graduate in four years (or five, for programs that require more hours)? Which classes should they take first? Do they need summer school? Graduating on time will prevent students from taking on more loans and allow them to start earning in order to pay back loans.

Be active in financial aid planning. As mentioned earlier, students should familiarize themselves with the financial aid office. In particular, talk to someone about financial aid options and loan management. Is he or she eligible for scholarships or grants? Can he or she participate in work-study? Additionally, students should be informed about how much they can borrow annually and cumulatively over the course of their degree. The more involved a student is in financial aid planning, the more prepared he or she will be to deal with debt after graduation.

Students should not give up on their dream major or job just because it is low-paying; but they should be well-informed about the association between their major and student loans. For more information on how choosing a major can affect the student’s ability to repay student loans, take a look at Balancing Passion and Practicality: The Role of Debt and Major on Students’ Financial Outcomes, published by TG in August 2012. The report is available online at www.TG.org/research.