College Majors Actually Say A Lot About How Smart You Are

February 13th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

A couple of years ago, multiple studies pointed to the same conclusion: while a college degree is an important factor for many employers, the subject of the major doesn’t seem to matter as much. In the New York Fed study, only 27.3 percent of college graduates were working a job directly related to their major. So, then, what can we learn from the popularity or unpopularity of certain majors?

Earlier this month, Jonathan Wai, a researcher at Duke University published his findings on those very questions. While majors don’t necessarily directly lead to certain jobs, Wai found that they do say a lot about individual intelligence.

Looking at group averages in five different measures of U.S. student aptitude, Wai concluded that since 1946, when the first numbers he used were collected, a higher stratum of cognitive skill correlates with a few areas of study. “[I] discovered that the rank order of cognitive skills of various majors and degree holders has remained remarkably constant for the last seven decades,” Wai wrote.

In other words, technically smart students tend to gravitate to a select few areas of study. And those fields aren’t exactly surprising.

In a 1946 Army General Classification Test (AGCT), an early version of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery evaluation used today, 10,000 students across 40 universities were measured for academic aptitude. The lowest aptitudes were found in education, agriculture, and business and commerce, while the highest were in engineering and physical science.

Five years later, data from the now-defunct Selective Service College Qualification Test (SSCQT), which measured math and verbal abilities of nearly 40,000 college seniors, showed the same trend; education on the lowest end, engineering and physical sciences on the higher end.

Yet another sample across 400,000 students who were tested on math, verbal, and spatial skills in high school in the 1970s, and followed up 11 years after graduation to see where they had ended up yielded similar findings regarding the fields students with higher aptitudes went on to study. Two other studies using 1.2 million GRE data samples with intended graduate majors from between 2002 and 2005, and 2014 SAT data wherein around 1.6 million students had indicated their areas of intended study, found the same pattern.

So what does it mean that the traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, sometimes referred to as STEM majors, attract the top scoring students on traditional tests? More importantly, how do we understand data that shows low-scoring students largely going into education? Does it matter that STEM majors tend to be the most highly paid?

In many ways, Wai’s findings aren’t necessarily surprising. Technically smart students will naturally be drawn into the relevant technical fields, which, as it happens, tend to pay more thanks to prohibitive skill requirements and relative cultural importance (science, engineering, etc.). But should we take all of that at face value?

The findings could indeed engender at least a second look at where cultural values lie. According to Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America, what top students choose to study has a large effect on societies’ development, and with Wai’s finding’s in mind, a reexamination of the cultural value of teachers, for example, could be overdue. The latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment, the body that ranks countries’ students’ proficiency, are not out yet, but data from three years ago showed American students weren’t even in the top 20. It raises the question of whether we need more of our smartest students to enter the teaching profession.

Wai’s findings do not suggest that teachers are always pulled from a duller group of students, nor does it necessarily question their societal worth. But they do bring attention to the entrenched nature of certain academic patterns. And while the U.S. recruits many bright teachers from programs at top universities, the comparison to countries like Singapore, Finland, and South Korea, who pull their teachers exclusively from the top third of the academic strata and have top education records, remains noteworthy. Indeed, Wai notes a 2010 report that suggests that following patterns from other countries could improve U.S. education.

Whether or not a shift is in order ultimately remains to be seen. But until then, Wai’s findings illustrate the importance of at least thinking about it.