Major Selection and Post-College Financial Obligations

Imagine telling your family you hope that you or your child majors in philosophy. Feel the blank stare. Watch the slow head-nod. Researcher Natasha Quadlin knows this is an odd scenario because the major is considered wildly unmarketable. But perhaps this is actually a good sign: perceived financial obligations after college may affect students’ major selection during college.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, Quadlin’s new Social Forces piece investigates how three funding sources (loans, family contributions, and grants) affect students’ choice of study. Quadlin sorts majors into either applied or academic—where applied fields are oriented to a specific job, such as nursing or engineering, and academic fields fall typically in the social sciences and humanities—and into STEM and non-STEM.

Quadlin found that students who anticipate post-graduation financial obligations are more likely to choose applied majors, with higher student loan debt increasing the adoption of “applied non-STEM” fields, such as business or nursing. Yet, because students pursuing academic majors are more likely to attend graduate school, students with greater loan obligations may be untentionally opting-out of post-graduate work. Students who receive more family financial contributions and expect little debt after college are more likely to perceive these years as a period of intellectual exploration and remain undeclared with respect to a major in their first year of enrollment. Grant money emerged as an outlier, with little effect on students’ major and course selections.

Education is often referred to as “the great equalizer,” but this study adds to the litany of ways education may inadvertently increase inequality. Prior work has shown that students from different socioeconomic backgrounds choose different majors, and different degrees yield different occupational outcomes and lifetime earnings. The earning gap between those with college degrees can be larger than the earning gap between high school and college graduates. Funding sources not only shape the decisions students make in pursuing a degree, but their work lives as a whole.