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Human Capital & Your “Useless Major”

It’s that time of year. College graduates will don silly looking black robes and square hats, sit through mediocre commencement spearkers, and then be thrust into the world, unemployed and desperate for a break. Some of them will find a good, high paying job easily, and others will struggle mightily. In this piece Nathan Palmer explores the sociological term human capital and answers the question, are there “useless majors”?

very funny graduation a young man

Not all majors are created equal. That is the finding of a study done by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce . The study finds that student who pick a major that has a career attached to it (like accounting and being a CPA) are more likely to get hired after college. The study also finds that graduates who are skilled at making technology as opposed to using technology are more likely to be find a job post graduation. News outlet, TheDailyBeast.com used the data from this Georgetown study to put together a list of 13 “useless majors” that includes everything from fine art to theater to political science. At this point you may be wondering is my major a “useless major”?

Well fear not, sociology is here to answer your question, but before we do, let’s examine your college education through a sociological lens. Why did you go to college? If you took out money to invest in your education, why did you do that? My guess is among your many reasons one of them was, you wanted to get a good job. Someone told you that if you wanted to get a high paying job with benefits, you’d need to go to college.

When you “invest in yourself” by honing your skills, abilities, and talents you are adding value to your human capital. Let’s break this term down real quick. This is a form of capital because it makes things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be (just as cash makes it possible for you to watch The Hunger Games at the movies if you’re bored on a Friday night). Without capital things aren’t possible. The human side of human capital comes from the idea that you are investing in yourself.

When you “go to market” with your human capital (i.e. apply for jobs) you’ll find that not all human capital is created equal. My dad invested time and money in learning to speak Klingon, but as of yet, he has not found it to be a lucrative job skill. If a person could major in Sportscenter, I’d have a Ph.D. in it. You may be a world class text messager, but mad SMS skills do not translate into being featured on MTV Cribs.

No, it turns out that some skills, abilities, and talents are valued above others. Furthermore, where you acquired your skills matters. If you got your Ph.D. from an unaccredited online program that has a terrible reputation it won’t be more valuable than a bachelor’s degree from Harvard.

We should also point out that human capital often doesn’t come from a formal educational institution. I boned up on HTML, PHP, CSS and other web programing skills in my free time as an undergraduate and got a number of paying gigs off of it. A good friend of mine fell in love with a girl who immigrated from Portugal, became fluent Portuguese, and got a job working for company that does a lot of work in Brazil. We pick up skills from all over the place, some that are compensated well by “the market” and others that are not.

Ok, so back to this notion of “useless majors”. That’s horse pucky (forgive my coarse language). While it’s true that some majors make it easier to be “stankin’ rich” as the kids say, the value of an education can’t be encapsulated in how easy it is for you to get a job post graduation. The most important skills you should pick up from college are how to creatively solve interesting problems and how to write and communicate your ideas well. Those forms of human capital are valued everywhere.

I often hear students say, “I’d love to major in ______, but there is no way to make money doing that.” So instead of majoring in a topic they love, they slog through a degree in a “safe major”. This brings up the final point about human capital. If you are amazingly skilled at nearly anything, there will be opportunities for you to get paid to use those skills. If you are the best interpretive dance major in the United States you will probably find it easier to get a job than if you are a painfully average business student.

So now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hop in my Honda Accord, pick up my kid, and go to Subway for dinner. I’m “balling on a budget” with my sociology degree 🙂

Dig Deeper:

  1. What are some of the forms of human capital that you have?
  2. When you selected your major, did the ease of getting a job after graduating affect your choice?
  3. Why did/do you want to go to college? Was it only to get a “good job”? What other motivations bring students to college?
  4. Where else do people acquire human capital other than formal educational settings? Give some examples.