Not-So-Great Expectations

Students in a new Rutgers study indicate pay doesn't matter in selecting a major.

August 17, 2018

If college students knew how much money they’d make after graduation -- even if it's less than they thought -- would they still choose the same major?

Probably, according to a new report.

Michelle Van Noy, associate director of Rutgers University's Education and Employment Research Center, along with Alex Ruder, a nonresident visiting scholar at the university’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, surveyed more than 4,900 undergraduates, a range of students from freshmen to graduating seniors, at the institution's three campuses in New Brunswick, Camden and Newark, N.J.

The survey asked students to pick from six broad fields: business, education, health, humanities, social science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Then students were shown either the median salary in the field they picked, a range of pay and information on job security in that chosen field, or no data at all.

After students viewed the salary information, researchers asked them to estimate their future salary, as well as the likelihood that they would pick a major associated with that field.

The researchers found that being presented with salary data didn’t seem to affect whether the students would choose a major. Students who weren’t shown the data were about as likely to pick a given major as those who were, even if the salary was different than what they initially thought it would be.

Information on job security also did not seem to influence their decision.

“Students’ choice of major is a highly complex process influenced by many factors, and this information on earnings alone is likely to be insufficient to substantially sway students’ decisions,” the researchers wrote.

The results are specific to just Rutgers, the flagship public university of New Jersey. The percentage of students answering the survey generally matched Rutgers' demographics, with one exception: the percentage of women at the university is 52 percent, while 66 percent of survey respondents were women (and a total of 6,140 students filled out the survey, but only 4,900 completed it).

A similar survey of Duke University undergraduate men found that their knowledge of average earnings is not always accurate, and that better knowledge of pay would lead a small portion of students -- about 7.5 percent -- to change their majors.

In the new study, Van Noy and Ruder also found that showing students their earning potential lowered their expectations for how much they would make, especially among students in STEM and business fields. The researchers believe that the high-paying jobs in these fields cause students to form “pie-in-the-sky” conceptions about potential pay.

The students who viewed the median salaries in STEM and business ranked their potential salary roughly $10,000 lower than those who got no data on pay -- for instance, a typical business major who got no pay data pegged a starting salary at about $75,550 annually, versus one who saw the median salary ranking pay at $65,450.

Many students hold "higher-than-realistic views" of potential future earnings in these fields, the researchers wrote -- and viewing national data on earnings and employment "served to lower these expectations.”

They also warned that students’ "optimistic expectations about earnings in these fields may be cause for concern to the extent that these perceptions lead students away from other fields that they may prefer and may be more lucrative than they think."

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Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

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