Budget Student's Guide to Choosing a Major

Choosing a College Major

By Toni Martello

You may be asking yourself: what does being on a budget have to do with the major I choose? Well, more than you might think. Of course, your financial situation should not be the only thing you consider when determining your academic path. It’s important to pursue something that you’ll find intellectually and spiritually fulfilling so you don’t end up hating your field or spending even more money to go back to school to be trained in something else. However, finances will likely play a role in the individual classes you choose and the major (and potential future plans) around which you organize your efforts and interests. Here are a couple of things to consider when deciding between underwater basket weaving and that math/economics double major.

Associated Costs

While finances probably shouldn’t be the deciding factor in your choice of studies, the cost of books and other supplies can vary significantly between majors. Books for science classes, for instance, can run you hundreds of dollars used. Lab and supply fees are also common. Art classes, too, can require costly materials. According to the College Board, the average student spends $988 every year on books and supplies, which is a significant chunk of cash. Speak with an upperclassman or with someone knowledgeable within a particular department, such as an administrative assistant, to get an idea of the additional costs typically incurred by students.

Studying abroad can be another costly expense. Most majors do not require it, but depending on the department it can be strongly encouraged or, at the very least, beneficial to your studies. This may mean a lost opportunity to earn money if you’re unable to work abroad or cannot pursue a position that requires you to stay on campus, like working as a Residential Advisor. Furthermore, the costs of studying abroad have been rising dramatically as the value of the US dollar drops.


If you feel compelled to pursue that career in finance even though your true calling is in the humanities, try to strike a balance. You don’t necessarily have to turn in your tutu – consider minoring or double-majoring. Depending on your school’s policies, it may be relatively easy to have more than one concentration, especially if you’re planning on taking all those dance classes for fun anyway.

As a student on a budget, you may find a difference in values between yourself and wealthier peers regarding your choice of major. Students who don’t come from a lot of money may feel pulled toward pragmatic choices for their major, their career, or both. The pressure can come from within, as many students are determined to put their hard-earned and expensive education to good use. Forbes reports that the average annual salary of a psychology major a few years out of college is $35,000, whereas the average salary for a computer science major less than five years out is $60,500. In general, liberal arts majors will not earn as much as students majoring in more pre-professional subjects like economics and electrical engineering.

You may also feel pressure from your parents or family members who want you to major in something that directly relates to a profitable field of employment. It can be difficult for the older generation to understand the value of an “impractical” major. However, the decision is ultimately up to you, and only you can sort out your priorities and make the final decision.

Planning Ahead

These conflicting feelings, whether internal or between you and your family, can be rooted in issues that are all too real. Chances are good that, unless you go to one of the small number of colleges that have replaced financial aid loans with grants, you will leave school with debt. This debt can sometimes be substantial, totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Planning ahead for a practical, if not lucrative, career may better ensure that you are able to pay off that debt. Or maybe you’ll decide that once you graduate you’ll need to get a job rather than immediately pursuing graduate studies.

Recognize Your Skills

If practicality is not your guiding principle and you do end up with that underwater basket weaving degree, is all hope lost? Of course not. Students attending liberal arts colleges, for example, are repeatedly advised that they may end up working in a field unrelated to their major. There is plenty of truth to this – a liberal arts education, in theory, teaches you more than just the subject matter of your specific field. Try to bear in mind the versatility of your activities and studies. Writing, comprehension, and critical thinking skills are all bolstered by four years of classes, essays, and tests. If you can show graduate schools and/or future employers that you are a strong candidate overall because of the positive attributes you have strengthened through your education, then your major may not matter after all. That said, it can’t hurt to try to take courses related to potential future interests. Even if it’s not in your major, a relevant course will still show up on your transcript. And luckily, a number of grad schools embrace the idea of a “well-rounded” student.

Or maybe you’re just one of the proud few who excel at weaving baskets underwater and you’ll be fortunate enough to make a career out of it. Whatever the case, there’s always hope for you. First and foremost, you should determine your priorities – be they grad school, a career, or just a sweet time in college – and make your choices accordingly.