What's Your Major, and Does It Matter? Mick Jagger majored in economics. So did Paul Newman. Thurgood Marshall studied dentistry. And Brooke Shields? French literature. Guests talk about choosing a college major and what that has to do with the rest of your life.
NPR logo

What's Your Major, and Does It Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5658177/5658178" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What's Your Major, and Does It Matter?

What's Your Major, and Does It Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5658177/5658178" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

As college students trickle back to campus this month, it's time to recycle that G-rated pickup line - hey, what's your major? If college majors actually determined what people did in their lives, well, Cindy Crawford would be managing the nearby chemical engineering plant, Bill Belichick would be coaching the Federal Reserve Board and you might have a shrink appointment with Wes Craven.

But famous exceptions aside, what you study in school can be more than a footnote on your resume. It can influence your future earnings even more than where you went to college. This hour we'll look at trends, what majors are most popular and why and what kinds of questions students should ask their college counselors. We'll ask talk to the world's only university certified enigmatologist.

Later in the hour, the FCC looks into television stations that use corporate video press releases as news. But first, hey, what's your major? Did the books you cracked in college come in handy in your actual line of work? Do you use your Latin a lot? Or did you create your own major? If you majored in ventriloquy or avionics, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Our first guest is Robert Franek. He oversees the Princeton Review's College and Graduate School Guidebook Publishing, which puts together a list of popular college majors every year, and he's with us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. ROBERT FRANEK (College and Graduate School Guidebook Publishing, Princeton Review): Good to be back, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: So English made the list as always. What's at the top?

Mr. FRANEK: Actually in this - these are from, directly from the U.S. Department of Education, social sciences, business, education. And I think that students' tastes have changed over the last five and certainly 10 years to focus on some of those practical-based studies. So no longer are students just thinking about the liberal arts in a vacuum, but they're thinking about the liberal arts and what sort of internships they can take, experiential learning opportunities, and what can they get with that degree whether it move on to a graduate school or a great first-time career after they graduate.

CONAN: So for you that's the surprise, people are treating college a little bit more vocationally?

Mr. FRANEK: Yeah, I think it's very different from - just from the research that students start to put into schools when, let's say, they're sophomores and juniors in high school, along with their parents, and putting admissions counselors really to the task and saying, you know, what is my practical liberal arts degree going to get me? Are there things that I can do while an undergraduate -and this is an early undergraduate, first or second year in college - that will get me outside of the classroom? Which I think is very different than it was a few years ago.

CONAN: Does it also suggest that, well, I'm a little older. It was typical that kids really didn't know what they wanted to do when they went to college.

Mr. FRANEK: Yeah, you know, it's funny that you should bring that up. There was an article that came out on AOL a couple of months ago that talked about degrees in the ‘70s and then degrees in the 2000s, and, you know, of course English and the social sciences are up there, but then biology and education are certainly still there. And the comparison that they had made in the article was that kids in the ‘70s were certainly more focused on the liberal arts, not thinking exactly how their liberal arts degree was going to pan out whether they moved onto a career or onto graduate school.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Roscoe in Colorado. “I graduated in the later 1970s with a physical science degree. I didn't know what I wanted to work at but felt strongly about some things I did not want to work at. I didn't want to work for the government nor for big oil, and since I'd endured an insipid required course in technical journalism, I did not want to do that.

“Presently I write technical reports for the state oil and gas regulatory department. In retrospect, I wish I had just after graduation made some broad pronouncements about what I was not going to make millions in the stock market.”

Mr. FRANEK: You know, it's an excellent point to bring up, and I think that lots of students today are taking - well, you know, liberal arts degrees require you to take lots of different courses in cross section, but also will compel you to take some internships. And I think that if you can save some time in crossing some careers off of your list before you get into the job market after you graduate, it could save you a great deal of time and certainly wasted effort.

CONAN: Let's get practical. What can you do with that English major?

Mr. FRANEK: Well, I mean you can do a host things. I mean certainly going onto a graduate school arts and science program, a professional school. Many students move onto law school directly after they graduate. Typically, the age is 21 or 22 for a law school student, a little older for a B school student, so having some first-time experience.

But you know there are these great renaissance students, and I think that students are coming out more prepared when graduating with that four-year degree, having some sort of experiential learning opportunity, whether that's an internship, working for a for-profit or a not-for-profit company. And I think that they become smarter and certainly much more savvy once they graduate.

CONAN: Are there innovations in areas of study?

Mr. FRANEK: Well, I mean I think that a couple of things. We had done a study with - actually it's a new book that's coming out with the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences. They're focusing on careers in visual and performing arts and certainly in television and film, and we think that over the next eight to 10 years, there's going to be a 17 to 20 percent jump in careers in that specific area.

Not specifically in directing and acting, but sort of the below-the-line things, which I think is pretty exceptional. I think that we wouldn't have thought that five years ago, and so many students are clamoring for those new types of degrees, focusing on new technology, to answer your question.

CONAN: And I know there are some far out ones. You always look at the interesting exceptions. I know there's one at Santa Cruz where you can get a degree in gaming.

Mr. FRANEK: Yes, gaming is an excellent example, and I think that, again, students are focused on new technologies overall and really trying to find the schools that they can hone those interests but still be in that liberal arts environment. And Santa Cruz is a good example. Their mascot, the Banana Slugs. They have a great quality of life, but then in the classroom, they are focused. They have good accessibility to professors and certainly pushing them towards those new technology fields.

CONAN: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. What did you major in? And what effect does it have on your actual life? Let's start with Howard. Howard's calling from San Francisco.

HOWARD (Caller): Hi, I took a linguistics major, UC Berkeley, and I'm a pharmacist now. And I find that this actually does help in that it gives me greater perception - I counsel people a lot, people from all different levels of life, and this gives me greater perception as to are they understanding me and how can I put across my information in a way that better suits them.

CONAN: So you do find it useful, but nevertheless there's no sort of direct correlation that all the linguistic majors go into pharmacy school.

HOWARD: No, however, I will comment, because I work with a lot of people who went directly through the whole biochemistry, physical sciences tract and into pharmacy school. And those are the people who discover five and 10 years out, I'm not really happy doing this. I've never really had much exposure to anything else, and I'm not happy. The people who really enjoy it more are people who have a broader range in their background.

CONAN: Interesting. Robert Franek, that sort of raises the question of, you know, you were talking about all these sort of vocational aspects to majors nowadays. People like Howard who might think, well, you know, I've learned to think about the world, I've learned to write a little bit, I've learned about the meaning of words and now I have a better understanding of the word. Some people would say that's what education is supposed to be about.

Mr. FRANEK: Yeah, and I think that it still is, and Howard brings up a couple of interesting points. The interaction that he has with clients that come in is certainly not something that a student that's going to be focused on the practical liberal arts is going to say - that's not important.

I still think that the liberal arts ideal will expose those students to a great breadth of information and certainly that interaction, whether it's through experiential learning programs or what have you. So those things still happen, but I think that students are simply more savvy about asking the questions of where these practical degrees is going to move me in the future.

And I think, again, put those admissions folks to task at the beginning part of the process simply makes a student, as well as their parents and their guidance counselors navigating that process together, much more savvy in their thought process.

CONAN: Howard, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

HOWARD: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Paul Harrington is the head of the Center for Labor Studies at Northeastern University, the author of the College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs. He's making the connection between your college major and gainful employment. He joins us now from the studios of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. Good to speak with you today.

Mr. PAUL HARRINGTON (Northwestern University): Nice to be on the show, Neal.

CONAN: Now I understand you're just updating a study on college majors in the labor market. What are you finding?

Mr. HARRINGTON: Well, again, big payoffs for people at the Bachelor's Degree level that come out with majors in occupationally specific fields, in the engineering fields, pharmacy. The health fields have, you know, strong employment earnings outcomes for the graduates. You know, towards the bottom of the distribution, of course, you'll find more humanities, and then the teaching fields are also a struggle as well.

CONAN: Yeah, because those fields don't pay so well.

Mr. HARRINGTON: Well, that's right.

CONAN: Is it more important what you major in or what school you go to?

Mr. HARRINGTON: Well, you know, part of what I see out there now, Neal, is that, you know, parents are very tied into this sort of status/prestige decision-making process in the junior and senior year of high school for their children. And the question that children are asked by their teachers and others are where are you going to college, rather than what are you going to study in college?

But I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming on this that what really matters the most is what you study in college and then secondarily, but related to it, where you go. And college students now, particularly the Bachelor's Degree but also at the Master's and doctor's degree level, are really investors. They're making decisions that are going to open up or close down a wide array of opportunities for them. So being well-informed and knowing where you're heading really matters a lot, particularly when the bill can run between $100,000 and $200,000 in a four or five-year period.

CONAN: Yeah, sure. It is a huge investment, but is it an investment in experience, in learning to cope with the world at large? Or you're suggesting that maybe focusing on something more narrowly is going to pay off more in the long run.

Mr. HARRINGTON: Well, the labor market says four things. First, reading, writing and math proficiencies are the fundamental ingredient to labor market success and of course educational success. But employers themselves are just very good at figuring out who's got strong reading, writing and math skills and who has weak ones. And that's even true at the Bachelor's Degree level. Bachelor's Degree students with stronger reading and writing and math proficiencies do much better than those with weaker ones.

The second thing, though, is the labor market really likes occupationally specific skills, skills that you learn in engineering, that you learn in science, that you learn in health, that really are primarily learned in the classroom, or at least to get access to careers in those fields, you need to go through classroom kind of learning activities. There are much bigger payoffs to that because supply is constrained.

But then the third thing -

CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Mr. HARRINGTON: The third thing you find is that there's a whole set of behavioral traits that employers really value a lot that, you know, just have to do with that world of work and, you know, working in teams, being able to communicate and the like that's oftentimes very closely associated with early work experience and kids getting jobs when they're in high school and in college.

And then the fourth thing that's really important is to figure out how you're going to broker whatever skills you learn in the post-secondary system, how you're going to broker those skills into the job market and capitalize on those skills when you enter the labor market at the Bachelor's, Master's, or doctor's degree level.

CONAN: And well, try to figure out how to, in other words, get those internships and those other things that can get your foot in the door and get the experience you need, because after the first job, it's not so much where did you go to school, what did you major in? It's what have you done?

Mr. HARRINGTON: Oh, the evidence is overwhelming on that. I mean, you know, if you're going around a firm, firms have no idea where their staff come from. They, you know, it's only at the entry level that this seems to matter. But even when we do studies about the impact of where you go to college, once you hold basic skills constant and major field of study constant, you know, we really don't find big gains to going to elite schools.

Why is that the case? Because the labor market is just so good at finding really bright, really talented people, regardless of where you went to college.

CONAN: All right, hang in there, both of you, Robert Franek and Paul Harrington. If you'd like to join the conversation, the phone number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We got this e-mail from David Coverly. “I'm a syndicated cartoonist, which is a field you don't exactly major in when you attend a university. However, I majored in philosophy, and like Steve Martin, it not only taught me the skill of reflection, it still helps me to conceptualize. Cartooning requires me to think in terms of a big scenario, then capture a small amount of humor within that scenario. My major also gave me exactly two philosophically related cartoon ideas in my career, which I estimate cost my parents $15,000 each. I'm sure they're thrilled.” That from Dave Coverly, who's the author of the comic strip Speedbump.

So our guests are Robert Franek and Paul Harrington. Robert Franek oversees The Princeton Review's College and Graduate School Guidebook Publishing, which puts together a list of popular college majors every year. Paul Harrington is the head of the Center for Labor Studies at Northeastern University.

We're talking about what your major is and what it means for the rest of your life. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. And let's talk with Justin, Justin calling from San Francisco.

JUSTIN (Caller): Hi. It's good to be on your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

JUSTIN: I myself attend UC Berkeley, and I'm a history major, and I'm actually interested in going into business and politics. And I think the interesting thing is that education today, particularly in the United States, has become basically vocational school. The sense that, you know, 50 years or so ago, schools would educate you on philosophy, mathematics, English, history. Now I find that people who major in mathematics or engineering really don't graduate educated. I think it's become vocational school, and I think the danger in that is that if we don't know our history, we're kind of blind to the future.

I mean I think if we look at any of the founding fathers and, you know, where are the renaissance men of today? You know, Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, a mathematician, a diplomat, and I feel like that today, we're just not educating people about the past, about philosophy, and I think so much of that is so much more important to understanding the world.

CONAN: Paul Harrington, what do you think?

Mr. HARRINGTON: Yeah, I would say the opposite, that when I look at students that major in social sciences and humanities, they are very rarely given a broad breadth of education. They don't study business. They don't study engineering. They don't study the health systems. These are really important parts of American life, and yet students that, you know, major in engineering and in health and the like do liberal arts courses. They take English, they take mathematics. You know, they do have this broader background, so I don't, I think that's a weak case.

JUSTIN: Wouldn't something like engineering would be something you should go to graduate school for perhaps?

Mr. HARRINGTON: Well, here's the issue, that not everyone comes from an affluent background and that you have an economy, you know, think back to the early 1970s. The economic premium, the size of the wage premium for a kid coming out of college relative to a high school grad was only about 17 percent. So what that meant was that there was almost no advantage to going to college. Okay? And Richard Freeman over at Harvard had written a book called The Overeducated American that basically said we're over supplying the college labor market, and he was absolutely right.

Thirty years later, what's happened now is the lifetime earnings of a person with a Bachelor's Degree compared to a high school diploma, that we expect them to earn double. And what's happened is is the economic return to a college degree has exploded because changes in the job content to the economy have occurred. So different individuals have got to get these occupational skills at different points in their life. Not everyone can defer that choice to go to graduate school. Not everyone's privileged enough to go to Berkeley and go on to graduate school.

JUSTIN: I just think that education shouldn't be about making money. I think that's kind of - I think we've kind of come to think of college as meaning a big salary, but that shouldn't be what it's about. It should be about expanding your mind and preparing you for the world. It shouldn't be about a job.

CONAN: Well, Robert Franek, let's bring you into this.

Mr. FRANEK: Yeah, I mean, I think that - I certainly understand the plight of a student that sort of focuses on engineering. Let's say they go to a specific school that specializes in engineering and not getting a liberal arts breadth of education in the background, but I think that those students are rare. I think more students are going for that liberal arts degree where they would be compelled and really obliged to take lots of liberal arts type courses.

Neal, as you had said before, we have a list of college majors, and we profile different schools in this book Best 361 Colleges. Actually, Northeastern, Professor Harrington's school, is in there. And they're unapologetic about allowing a student to take a cooperative year, so they have a five-year undergraduate degree.

So that doesn't cheapen the idea of liberal arts but still allows that student - and that could be in the for profit or not for profit section to answer your caller's question - and really focus that student, expose him to a great breadth of experience, not necessarily focused on money but exposure and access more than cash.

CONAN: Justin, thanks very much for the call, and good luck with your political career.

JUSTIN: Thanks very much. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Scott. “When I was an undergrad at the University of Delaware, I almost took advantage of a make your own major program to create a major in evil. It actually could have been really legit. I would have taken classes in philosophy, criminal justice, psychology, history and literature, but truth be told, I mostly just wanted to be able to tell people I majored in evil. To this day I wished I'd had guts to do it though I don't know how it could have made that much of a difference to the direction in my life. I ended up teaching philosophy in classics at the university level anyway, and that's what I would have wanted to do as Dr. Evil, too.”

Well, there are close to a dozen colleges and universities in the country that allow students to major in more or less anything they way if they're accepted into the program. At Indiana University, that program is called the Individualized Major Program. Some of the interesting courses of study over the years have included videogame design, comparative mysticism, even mime.

Joining us now to talk about the program is one of their more better known graduates, an erstwhile enigmatology major. Will Shortz is puzzle editor of The New York Times as well as WEEKEND EDITION Sunday's puzzlemaster, also the star of a new documentary Wordplay - I like to think of him as a co-star - which is still in the theaters. He joins us by phone from his house in New York. Hi, Will.

Mr. WILL SHORTZ (Enigmatology Major): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: So nobody can't say that you didn't use what you studied in college.

MR. SHORTZ: That's right. I mean that major was perfect for me because, well, because it gave me the academic underpinning in what I wanted to do with my life, and then I have this degree that nobody else in the world has ever had.

CONAN: You not only got to design the course, you got to name it.

MR. SHORTZ: That's right. Actually, enigmatology is an 18th Century word, probably hadn't been used in two centuries at the time I picked it up. I found it in the unabridged dictionary, and it means literally the study of riddles or enigmas. I broadened the term to include puzzles of all sorts.

CONAN: And you designed the course. Which kind of courses were you taking?

MR. SHORTZ: Well, examples of courses were 20th Century American word puzzles, where I studied, you know, basically all the popular types of word puzzles, that became popular in the last century. I took a course on crossword construction. Every two or three weeks I would create a new puzzle, take it into my professor's office, and sit there while he solved and critiqued it.

I studied math puzzles, logic puzzles, the psychology of puzzles, crossword magazines. My thesis was on the history of American word puzzles before 1860.

CONAN: And where did you find that professor willing to say, okay, Shortz, go ahead?

MR. SHORTZ: At the end of each semester as I was getting ready for my next one, I would figure out what department is closely - most closely related to my subject. So for word puzzles it was English. For math puzzles it was math and so forth. And I would go around the offices and find someone who liked puzzles and was willing to do this with me.

CONAN: And how did you - who told you whether you'd passed or failed?

MR. SHORTZ: Well, not surprisingly I got almost straight A's in my major.

CONAN: And I wonder, after you graduated with a degree in enigmatology - I've always wanted to ask you this - did you get any calls from Fort Meade in Maryland from the National Security Agency? We could use a man who can figure out puzzles.

MR. SHORTZ: Yeah, that's interesting. Actually I'm better at making, I'm a pretty good puzzle solver, but I think I'm better at making them.

CONAN: And for you the benefits of this program were, well, vocational.

MR. SHORTZ: That's right. You know, I think I understand the history of puzzles better than anyone else in the world, really, and I understand the psychology of puzzles, and I just, I've studied the subject more than anybody else.

CONAN: And you certainly put it to good use. Will Shortz, thanks very much for being with us. Are you working on a puzzle right now?

MR. SHORTZ: I'm preparing next week's - finishing - just polishing up next week's New York Times crosswords.

CONAN: It's going to be killer. I can tell now.

Will Shortz, puzzle editor of The New York Times, puzzlemaster of WEEKEND EDITION Sunday. Thanks very much for being with us.

MR. SHORTZ: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Will is also the star of the documentary Wordplay, which is still playing in theaters. Let's talk with Elizabeth, Elizabeth calling us from Boulder, Colorado.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi, it's great to be on the show.

CONAN: Thanks.

ELIZABETH: Very timely around this household. My daughter's in the thick of applying to colleges right now. I am exactly 30 years out of it myself. And when I was applying to colleges I knew I wanted to go to two colleges before I'd applied to any.

I wanted to go to a small, private liberal arts college, and then I wanted to transfer and go to a large public university, which I did. And I wanted both experiences. What I didn't know is that I would change my major.

I started as an English major and I switched when I switched schools to environmental conservation, which is what I graduated in, even though my whole life I wanted to write. But I think a lot of kids do what I did - one direction or the other - and that is switch majors, because they do what they think they ought to do instead of what they want to do.

And I think it's a little bit with your last caller, Justin's, comment of you should go to school to get broadly educated. But I really think you ought to go to school and follow your passion. However, that said, I in no way regret my course of study, because I just this year published my first novel with a mainstream publisher and my science background really informed it, even though it's fiction.

CONAN: Congratulations, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: Thank you very much. It's very thrilling. And my whole life, I've told my daughter, don't be a writer, don't be a writer. It's not solvent. You won't make a living. And so she wants to study theater.

CONAN: Boy. And I've got two like that and I'm looking forward to the day when they can both work in the same restaurant together.

ELIZABETH: They will. But I think I'm really a very good example of follow your dreams, even if it's a little circuitous, because it all adds to who you are if it's something you have a genuine hook into for one reason or another.

CONAN: And let me ask our guest - thank you Elizabeth very much for the call and we appreciate it and good luck with the book.

ELIZABETH: Thanks very much.

CONAN: Is there any statistic, sir, or have you looked at all, Robert Franek, into people who have switched majors and which are the most popular majors to switch into?

Mr. FRANEK: Well, I think that most students come into their first year undeclared. And, frankly, the folks at the Princeton Review and certainly myself, advise students in that way. Simply because they're going to be exposed to so much course work. And I think Elizabeth had it right. Finding your passion takes some time and it takes some experimentation. And it also takes some access from faculty members and certainly some validation from the school's perspective.

And I'm so glad that you brought Will Shortz on. IU Bloomington's an excellent school, but there's so many other schools that allow you to construct your own major once you find that passion. Pitzer College is one. Hobart and William Smith, upstate New York is another one. These are great schools that you might not know about when you first start researching schools but still provide that wonderful access and to find that passion.

CONAN: And Paul Harrington, I know you've got children as well. Did you give them advice on what they might want to major in?

Mr. HARRINGTON: Well, I didn't because my kids were very focused. My daughter when she was in high school realized she wanted to be a political journalist and so she thought -

CONAN: Terrible craft, you should never go into that.

MR. HARRINGTON: And she thought, I'll go study political science and then I'll go get some work experience in journalism, get clips and see if I can get a job. And so she spent her undergraduate career doing that, and she graduated from college and went to work for Congressional Quarterly down in Washington, D.C. And she's just switched jobs. She's now a journalist with Jane's Defense Weekly, where she reports on air defense systems.

CONAN: That's a very prestigious publication. That's top in the field.

MR. HARRINGTON: Yeah. Yeah. She's great. And my son was, you know, a young guy who knew he wanted to, you know, go into business and he just finished up his MBA program, as well. So these - you know, what I find is is that students that kind of have that - that the students that can - where college really works the best are kids that have that focus.

And that's why I thought the earlier - Elizabeth's comments were really good. That where we have to start is with the student themselves, their interest, their aptitudes and their abilities. And that's really got to help them shape what their major field of study is. But then that has to be tempered by what the realities of the labor market are.

And while Justin, you know, wants to believe that should major in history, you know, the answer is most people aren't going to go on to graduate school. In fact, the evidence is only about one-third of all those who receive an undergraduate degree will go to graduate school. And those who do go to graduate school, a very large fraction actually get their degrees in education as teachers. So the graduate option isn't a big one.

You really - you know, occupational access and career access in America really begins at the Bachelor's Degree level. So that the students that know where they're headed really are terrifically advantaged, I think, relative to kids who kind of drift through that undergraduate experience. And unfortunately we get a lot of drift and that's why we get high quit rates at some of our colleges.

CONAN: We're talking about your college major and what affect it has on the rest of your life. 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Michael. Michael's with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. It's great to be on the show.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

MICHAEL: Hi. I just graduated recently from a school here in Grand Rapids and my major was Latin. And I recently applied to become an Air Force officer. And I think a lot of people don't realize that the military is a very viable option for college graduates.

CONAN: And is Latin going to come in handy in air to air combat, do you figure?

MICHAEL: No. Latin probably will not at all unless we get into a swap with the Vatican.

CONAN: Possibly.

MICHAEL: You know, Benedict XVI.


MICHAEL: But I think what helped me, both Greek and Latin, the inflected nature of the language helped my analytical skills, and a lot like, you know, abstract mathematics can just help you think in a new way. And Latin definitely helped me (unintelligible) a couple things out a lot better. So.

MR. HARRINGTON: Let me just say, my wife was a Latin teacher in high school and she would absolutely agree with you.

MICHAEL: Yeah. Oh, it's absolutely amazing how it changes just the way you look at things and you puzzle through things, and it makes you really look at language and then just look at life differently. I loved it. And I just think that people out there need to realize that all four major branches of the military are accepting college applications, or rather applicants from college and it's pretty amazing what you can do.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call Michael and good luck to you.

MICHAEL: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with - this is Frankie. Frankie calling us from Sacramento.

FRANKIE (Caller): Hi. How's it going?

CONAN: Oh, it's going well.

FRANKIE: Good. Okay. I'm actually, I'm actually calling as a community college student, and I'm getting ready to transfer within the next year or so. And my plan is to go to the Bay Area, but in terms of which college I've decided to go to, I have not come to that conclusion yet. And my question is I've been actually wanting to go to the University of San Francisco for a long time, which is a private school and I also know that I have the option of going to, you know, a CSU or a USC. And my question is what type of - is there a different impact that my degree will have from a certain college, whether it's the CSU or a USC or even a private college, and what that means for my career?

CONAN: Paul Harrington, I think that's to you, yeah.

MR. HARRINGTON: Yeah. I would absolutely think, the first thing you need to think through is what do I want to study.


MR. HARRINGTON: And once you know that, then I think trying to think through which institution really has the best program - and I think - whereas Robert would say, you know, would provide you with some work experience related to that program so you could figure out whether that's really what you want to do. That's the thing that makes the most sense.

So think less about public versus private or profit versus non-profit and much more about what is it I want to study and what's that institution going to get me to where I want to be.

Okay. Okay. And then in terms of financially too, if I've already decided my major is - I mean, because I know that for myself personally, I'm going to be taking on a lot of my loans, especially when I'm done with college. And so that is also a factor in my decision as well.

CONAN: Yeah. That's going to be important.

FRANKIE: Right. So.

MR. HARRINGTON: I mean, I think those are the right factors to consider now. I mean, certainly financial aid is a huge concern for so many students. And I'm actually so glad that you called, bringing up the community college perspective. So many students start at a community college so that they can those baseline courses out of the way and then move on to a school of their choice. It's a good fight and you're moving in the right direction.

CONAN: Good luck, Frankie.

FRANKIE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: We'll continue this conversation about college majors and what effect they have on the rest of your lives when we come back from a short break. We'll also be talking about the FCC as it looks into use by local television news stations of corporate video releases. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Today we're talking about majors, minors, and what they have to do with your future life. Our guests are Robert Franek from the Princeton Review and economist Paul Harrington. You're invited to join the conversation, of course. Our phone number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Jeff. Jeff's calling us from Grand Rapids. Another caller from Grand Rapids. Jeff you're on the air.

JEFF (Caller): Hello. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good.

JEFF: Well, thank you for taking my call. It was interesting - I called in just as I heard Michael from Grand Rapids, had his major in Latin. We're from the same city. I just wanted to say I have an undergraduate degree in liberal arts. It was a program I designed myself. It's trichotomous. It's the law of the sea, exclusive economic zonation(ph), marine sciences, and a complete undergraduate music curriculum in performance and theory.

CONAN: That sounds great. And what do you do for a living?

JEFF: Well, I'm currently looking for what I can do for a living. Now I did go on to graduate school. I graduated Aquinas College's Master of Management program with a focus in strategic management, marketing and sustainable business. And I'm finding that I am absolutely unemployable. And to the point of your show, my undergraduate education - even my graduate education - has had no bearing, at least not in a positive way. I have only student loans to show for it.

CONAN: And in retrospect, do you regret your choices?

JEFF: Well, academically no, but in a practical sense very, very much.

CONAN: I wonder, Paul Harrington, if you have any remedial advice for Jeff.

MR. HARRINGTON: Well, I first want to note that the college labor market in this economic recovery has still not been strong. If you look at the last five recoveries in the American economy, we were able to generate jobs at much higher rates than in this recovery. So part of what's going on with Jeff is a problem for all new college graduates entering the job market. It's just not a great job market for anybody, as well as college grads.

Second thing is that I think that the business side of things has heated up. People coming out of Master's Degrees in business programs are still struggling a little bit. And, again, this is a function of the business cycle. You know, I would say that, you know, now knowing what the Master's in management is - you know, the question is do you have the accounting and finance background that, you know, I think may be a little bit more in demand on the business side, rather than kind of just the pure strategic management activities. So if I had a little advice I guess it would be think about that accounting and finance and maybe a little bit of IT specialization there as well.

CONAN: And Jeff the other thing might be that the specialty in marine sciences - Grand Rapids.

JEFF: Doesn't really fit, does it?

CONAN: No. You might want to move to one coast or the other.

JEFF: That's right. Here the study is limnology. And I did spend eight and a half years in Hawaii. I should also say I'm 45 years old. So I'm not your traditional out of college graduate looking for work.

CONAN: No. Well, all we can do is wish you the best of luck.

JEFF: And that's what a lot of people do. And I wish them the best of luck back. And thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Okay. Appreciate it. Let's get one last call in and this is going to be Cicely. Cicely calling from Nashville, Tennessee.

CICELY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CICELY: I was a major at Oberlin College, which was my first choice. And I graduated with a double major in German studies with a concentration in poetry and theater with a concentration in Shakespeare and costuming. And now I am a personal assistant to some high-profile clients, so I didn't really use it at all.

CONAN: None of whom are really Elizabethan or German poets, I take it.

CICELY: No, not at all. It came in handy one time when one of my clients bought a painting from a gallery in Germany and I translated.

CONAN: Nevertheless, do you have any regrets of this at all?

CONAN: No, absolutely not. I completely agree with what the earlier caller, Elizabeth, said, that you should just follow what you're interested in, because I've always been interested in German and theater. I was in my first theater show when I was four years old and I've been speaking German since I was 10 years old, and I'm 24 now. And I knew that's what I wanted to study.

So I looked at liberal arts colleges that offered both German studies and theater programs that were reputable, and Oberlin College was my first choice. I got in, they helped me out enough financially and it worked out great. And I think eventually you will find a place in the world. If there's a place in the world for someone like me, there's a place in the world for everybody.

CONAN: Robert Franek, what do you think?

Mr. FRANEK: Well I certainly think that you are a Renaissance person. My hat is off to you.

CICELY: Thank you.

Mr. FRANEK: You know, one thing that I did look up while we were on break was from that new book, Best 361 - a quote from Wagner College student, that's a little school out on Staten Island. And he said, “The best thing about my liberal arts degree is that we're free-thinkers, but we can actually pay the rent.”

And I think it's kind of cool when you think about the idea of the practical liberal arts - again, not cheapening the liberal arts, but again focusing a student toward some practical outcomes. Whether that's graduate school or a job, so be it.

CONAN: Nevertheless, Cicely, I did want to ask, I mean what did your prospective employer say when you applied for that first job?

CICELY: They kind of looked at me a little sideways, like why did you study that and then end up doing this, but they were impressed with my ability to think outside the box, and it allowed me to multi-task and change things up easily, which I have to be able to do to be a personal assistant because I'm on somebody else's schedule all the time, and it just helped me develop my brain in such a way that I could do this kind of thing. And I'm happy, and I'm good at it.

CONAN: Congratulations on both counts.

CICELY: Thank you very much. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Robert Franek, we hope you're happy and successful, too, but in any case, Robert Franek, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. FRANEK: Good to be here, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: Robert Franek oversees the Princeton Review's College and Graduate School Guidebook Publishing, which puts together a list of popular college majors every year. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

Paul Harrington, appreciate your time today, too.

Mr. HARRINGTON: It's been a lot of fun.

CONAN: Paul Harrington is the head of the Center for Labor Studies at Northeastern University and the author of College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs, and he joined us from the studios of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, Massachusetts.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.