How Your Parents Unintentionally Influenced Your College Major

When it comes to choosing a college major, job security and future economic prospects weigh heavily on the minds of the Millennial generation. But the extent to which those factors weigh per student tends to vary, and researchers found that high school grads on the upper end of the socioeconomic stratum are more likely to opt for academic studies that fall under the liberal arts category. 

Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics also confirmed what The Atlantic's Ken Pinsker has long suspected: "Kids from lower-income families tend toward 'useful' majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make money flock to history, English, and performing arts."

That is hardly a surprise. Come college application season, websites and magazines around the country—including the proverbial U.S. News & World Report—feature statistical breakdowns and ranking guidelines designed for incoming undergraduates. More and more often it seems that such features look at alum job rates and average student loan debt incurred per institution over, say, "college life" expectations and amenities offered.

"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 decided his or her academic path based on its expected payout," Pinkser says. "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."

What's more, it is not just the all-important major that influences college placement. Kids from lower-income families often gravitate toward schools that offer a more diverse range of academic tracks.

"Most of the priciest, top-tier schools don't offer Law Enforcement as a major, for instance," Pinsker notes. "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." 

With economic "safety nets" already in place, the logic goes, rich kids major in English—or academic tracks that are well-known for their overall lack of future job placement and payout prospects. There is data to support that, to be sure, but there is still a margin of error to consider.

"It's speculative, but richer kids might be going on to take lower-paying jobs because they have the knowledge that their parents' money will arrive eventually," Pinsker says.