A college degree is still your best bet for earning top dollar.
Yet with more Americans graduating from college, having a degree is no longer enough to stand out. To make the most of that degree in an economy filled with college grads, choosing the right degree is that much more important. Here are some tips for finding the right college major.
Research more than just income
Before he retired, I knew few people more content with their job than my uncle. He was a power plant operator.
He had Homer Simpson’s job.
Donut gags aside, it was a rough job. Alternating between days and nights on 12-hour shifts was normal. Constant monitoring of computer screens permanently damaged his eyes.
But those painful shifts were balanced by long, uninterrupted stretches of vacation. That gave him the freedom to do what he loves — be outdoors and travel the country.
Just as important as the pay was that the job fit my uncle’s lifestyle.
The much-pursued “work-life balance” isn’t one-size fits all. A steady nine-to-five is not what my uncle wanted. Yet for many people, no amount of days off could make up for the exhausting hours he worked.
Students should look at job growth and the size of paychecks for different careers. But they should also consider work environment and schedule. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is one of the best resources for learning not just what workers in a field earn but what the day-to-day of the job looks like.
“It all comes down to self,” said Jared Meitler, the senior assistant director at Kansas State University’s career center. “You’ve got to know yourself in order to make sure you can make informed career decisions.”
Take a test ride
I bounced around the communication department during my first few months in college. Performing in the university’s black box made it clear I wasn’t spinning acting into a career. I had little patience for all the time spent on lighting in TV and film. Radio was only a passing interest until I had my first on-air shift at my college radio station. That’s when I knew what my career would be (despite my live nosebleed during that radio show).
In college and before, there are plenty of low stakes opportunities for students to taste test different careers. Clubs and volunteer opportunities are more than just resume and college application padding. Internships may not pay well — or at all — but they provide an invaluable chance to practice a field before committing to it for decades.
For those looking to do more than dip their toes, Kansas will cover the tuition of high school students taking some career and technical education courses. Fees aren’t always included, but the program gives students a chance to get extensive experience in a field. Some students earn a job certification before their senior year of high school.
Pursue your passion, sure, but with your eyes open
My father once visited the communications buildings in the New Jersey college where I was studying. A near endless stream of comm students walked through the hall.
He asked how many would have a successful career in media. I said less than half. Not knowing which half I’d end up in, I shied away from his next question — so why do they let them all in?
Just because a degree is listed in the student handbook is no guarantee of success or even that success is likely. But enough graduates do make it to create a tempting bet. If students still want to take the gamble, they should at least know the odds. And beyond that, they should have a plan B.
“There’s always a plan C too just to keep bread on the table and the lights on,” said Stacy Smith, the assistant director of career and technical education with the Kansas State Department of Education.
A backup plan doesn’t have to involve a bland office job. Graduates may find the lead actor role unobtainable, but there are many jobs away from the spotlight that can keep graduates close to the stage.
There’s more than one path to a career
In 2013, I was listening to a host on NPR talk about how she ended up at the network. She wrote a letter in high school to NPR asking for advice and got clear directions back: Don’t major in communications.
I had just graduated with a bachelor of arts in communications.
Recommended majors included philosophy and history — majors I had dismissed. After all, who makes a decent living with a philosophy degree?
Apparently, many more graduates than I had realized. Americans with philosophy degrees earn on average $64,000 a year, according to payscale.com. They’re not all writing nonfiction explorations of utilitarianism. Many go on to be lawyers, marketing managers and even software engineers.
But your career may not sound much like the field you majored in. Building expertise in a different subject can make a job applicant stand out.
This isn’t true for every field — accounting firms still want accounting majors and it’s rare for lawyers to skip law school. But an aspiring immigration lawyer may be better served earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology than prelaw.
For those looking for inspiration more, here are four degrees in Kansas that pay well and had a good employment rate.
School: Washburn University
Median Income After Graduating: $50,525
Estimated Cost Of A Five-Year Degree: $74,523
Medical imaging jobs offer more reliable hours than many other health care occupations while growing as fast as the rest of the field. Students specialize in stenography, radiation therapy or operating magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. It’s a steady-but-fast-paced job with a large volume of patients passing through.
Washburn University’s program is competitive. It accepts only about 120 students a year. It’s also online, allowing Kansans in remote sections of the state to participate. Students still get hands-on training at a nearby medical site.
School: Emporia State University
Median Income After Graduating: $54,770
Estimated Cost Of A Four Year Degree: $62,167
Information systems is often incorrectly thought of as tech support. Information technology is about repairing. Information systems is about creating the system in the first place.
Information systems managers are responsible for considering how data flows through an organization. They determine the technology needs for an organization and how it’s used. How — and if — evolving tech like cryptocurrency gets integrated into a business are questions that information system managers are responsible for answering.
Aviation Maintenance Technology
School: WSU Tech
Median Income After Graduating: $51,670
Estimated Cost Of A Two Year Degree: $33,455
Aviation maintenance is projected to grow about the same pace as the average occupation in the country. But Kansas has an outsized need. Spirit Aerosystems recently announced it would be adding 1,400 new jobs in Kansas. There’s a lot of optimism in the industry at the moment. But a worsening trade war would dampen that outlook.
WSU Tech also offers certification programs for those that don’t want to wait two years to get into the job market.
School: Johnson County Community College
Median Income After Graduating: $52,617
Estimated Cost Of A Two Year Degree: $23,715
Respiratory therapy is the health care job for adrenaline junkies. Some time is spent working with patients suffering from chronic breathing conditions. But often respiratory therapists respond quickly to medical emergencies across the hospital.
Like nearly every health care job, the field is growing fast as the country ages and current workers retire. It also suffers from the usual health care irony — there’s a shortage of respiratory therapists but limited spots in training programs.
This is Part Six in our series on college and careers. Don't miss Part One on the advent of the "college economy," Part Two on planning life after high school, Part Three on Kansas' tech college boom, Part Four on free dual credit classes for high schoolers, Part Five on the state's heavy investment in engineering education, Part Seven on "degree inflation," and Part Eight on the lack of access to four-year college in southwest Kansas.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org. This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association reporting fellowship program.