Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
The explanation is fairly intuitive. “It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment,” Weeden says. With average earnings for different types of degrees as well-publicized as they are—the difference in lifetime earnings among majors can be more than $3 million, one widely covered study found—it’s not hard to imagine a student deciding his or her academic path based on its expected payout. And it’s especially not hard to imagine poorer kids making this calculation out of necessity, while richer kids forgo that means-to-an-end thinking.
Another trend expressed in the data, Weeden notes, is that lower-income families and higher-income families tend to send their children to schools with different options for majors: Most of the priciest, top-tier schools don’t offer Law Enforcement as a major, for instance. There is also the possibility that children from higher-income families were more exposed to the sorts of art, music, and literature that colleges deem worthy of study, an exposure that might inspire them to pursue those subjects when they get to college…
From this angle, college majors and occupations start to look more and more like easily-interpreted, if slightly crude, badges doled out to people based on the wealth and educational levels of the parents they were born to. There’s a reason that the first question asked at parties is often “So, what do you do?” “If we tend to avoid asking acquaintances about their income,” four prominent sociologists wrote in the 2011 anthology The Inequality Reader, “it’s not just because doing so is viewed as too intrusive and personal but also because we suspect that querying about occupation will yield more in the way of useful information.”
Four quick thoughts:
1. Of course, what majors actually lead to what jobs is not as clear as people might make it out to be. Just because someone has a particular major doesn’t mean that is where they will be working in 10 or 20 years. At the same time, some majors might lend themselves to particular jobs right after college.
2. Outside of an associate’s degree, the majors with the lowest parent incomes (top of the chart) are helping professions. This might indicate a bigger interest in wanting to work with people or directly give back to the community. Reading uncharitably, do the majors with higher parent incomes lend themselves to a certain distance from people?
3. It is interesting that sociology, political science, and anthropology are higher up on the list of parent’s incomes. Students sometimes seem to suggest that these are luxury subjects – interesting perhaps (if they don’t think it is just common sense) but too difficult for finding a career.
4. This would all make sense in Bourdieu’s ideas about social class. Those with less economic capital tend to favor more functional items while those with more capital lean toward the abstract. Why should college major be exempt from the powerful organizing forces of social class?